We Contain Multitudes by Sarah Henstra
TW: Abuse, Homophobia, Drug Use
Overview: Letter writing is often called a lost art, but an English class assignment in Minnesota brings it back to two teens. Kurl hates school, he doesn't do many assignments, and everyone is hoping he'll do enough to graduate. Jo, his sophomore pen pal, is locked in a battle with horrible bullies who torment him on the daily because he's gay and dresses in the style of his idol, Walt Whitman. While Kurl feels totally detached from Jo's dense language and different ideas, they get to know each and suddenly writing letters isn't as much of a chore. Overall: 4
Characters: 4 Kurl is a former football player, sort of the joke of the school on the academic front, and the guy no one wants to mess with. His hard exterior, though, starts to melt through his letters with Jo. Kurl works through his sadness over his father's death and his brother Mark's hard adjustment after serving in the Middle East. He also works through his sadness and anger about his abusive uncle and his confusion about his own sexuality. Kurl really grows over the course of the novel in an interesting and compelling way.
Jo is not as much of a dynamic character as Kurl, but he has his own distinct voice and shows Kurl a different side to the world he lives in.
There's also a great group of highly complex supporting characters for Kurl's family to Jo's sister and father and her sister's best friend, Bron. They each have very detailed backstories and compelling plots of their own without taking away from Kurl and Jo's narrative.
My only issue here is that Kurl is a senior and Jo is a sophomore who really is very young and innocent. While I tried to keep an open mind about it and let the story guide my feelings, there were a few scenes that really struck my fear of that power imbalance in the relationship. It just gave me an uneasy feeling throughout the book.
Plot: 4 The plot is quite detailed and intricate which I really admire. There's also a lot that happens. It follows an entire year in an intense amount of detail. It took me a while to get through, and, while I enjoyed reading it, there was nothing that made me feel compelled to keep reading it or reading it quickly.
There were also some scenes that sort of rubbed me the wrong way. The book deals with tons of very heavy, very serious issues, and, while I appreciate books that delve into them, this story didn't feel like it was entirely handled properly. There were a lot of little moments that just felt off without having a huge red flag.
Writing: 4 This is a very interesting story and very intense. Sarah does an amazing job with the epistolary format. I have a love/hate relationship with the letter/journal format because to create real scenes it starts to feel untrue to the format. I never got that feeling with this book. It is also very atmospheric. Though it seems to be set in 2015ish, it feels very old and faded in a way, like it existed in some far away point in history.
Honestly, this book would have been 5 stars for me if it wasn't for the questionable moments.
Links of Interest:
About Reading Slumps,,,: Here
Into YA with Deborah Maroulis: Here
Within and Without: Review Here
The Lying Wood: Review Here