Two notable young adult novels released this month take on memory loss and all that comes with having a spotless mind.
In “Being Henry David,” a teenage boy wakes up in New York City’s Penn Station with amnesia. He’s pretty beaten up, and all he’s got in his hand is a copy of Thoreau’s “Walden.” His gut tells him that he shouldn’t go to the police. Instead, he begins an adventure as “Hank,” and finds himself traveling to Concord to seek answers from the man he’s decided must be his spirit guide, the original Henry David.
Cal Armistead’s story of Hank is not only an English teacher’s dream (If “Walden” is on your required reading list, this makes a nice companion piece), it’s also a clever look at identity and who we are without our baggage. Our hero Hank wakes up and does bad things. He suspects that he might have a sordid past, yet his instincts suggest the opposite. He cares for new friends. He bonds with strangers. He is resilient. The reader must ask: What defines Hank? His past or his impulses in the present?
Armistead manages to write this upsetting tale of a boy on the run with a surprising amount of humor. Locals will get a special kick out of Hank’s impressions of Concord. Hank quickly learns that modern-day Concord is not Thoreau’s Concord. “It seems like the kind of place where they automatically award every kid a Mercedes as soon as he or she passes driver’s ed,” Hank says. Later he asks, “Do all the girls in Concord look like perfect little cheerleaders?” I only wish the New York scenes had been grittier.
By the end of the book we’re desperate to know whom Hank really is, but we’re also terrified to get the answer. When it was clear that Hank’s identity would finally be revealed, I had a tough time turning the page. Armistead shows how much courage it requires for some of us to stop running from who we are.
In Jessica Brody’s “Unremembered,” a sci-fi novel already set up to be a trilogy, a young and weirdly-perfect woman wakes up to find out that she’s the sole survivor of a plane crash. Unlike Armistead’s Hank, who remembers sarcasm and slang despite his amnesia, Violet (a temporary name referring to her striking violet eyes) remembers nothing, not even basic social cues. After being placed in foster care by confused authorities, she begins to realize that she might be in danger and that the young man who repeatedly shows up and tells her she doesn’t belong here might be the only person who knows her true identity.
“Unremembered” falls into the greater “Hunger Games”-ish genre of young adult books featuring a heroine who must do awesome things to survive, but the memory-loss plotline is what makes it notable. As a sci-fi mystery, it’s just OK. But Brody hooks us by letting us see the world for the first time through Violet’s eyes. Imagine having no memory of grilled cheese sandwiches.
“The flavor explodes in my mouth,” Violet tells us, “overwhelming me and filling me with a sense of elation that I can’t quite understand. The texture is both crunch and creamy, and every time I chew it releases more and more delicious aroma onto my tongue.”
Of course, like Hank, Violet still has instincts. She falls for the cute hero boy, as a young girl must in these books. The more interesting relationship, however, is the one she forms with her foster brother, Cody, whom she begins to treat like family before she even understands what that means. The scenes between Violet and Cody where he helps her escape danger while decoding confusing American idioms, are heartening.
Violet has a funny way of explaining how she feels when she experiences love. “That spot in the center of my forehead begins to glow with heat again.” Maybe she feels that heat in her head (as opposed to her chest) because she’s an alien or a robot or a vampire (I won’t give away the crux of this young adult series just yet), but we all have that hot spot somewhere, don’t we?
And that’s the lovely takeaway from both of these books. Even if we’re stripped of every memory, every piece of knowledge that makes us who we are, and we find ourselves in a new world or in the middle of suburban Concord, we’ve got a spot of glowing heat that just won’t quit.
BEING HENRY DAVID
By Cal Armistead
Albert Whitman Teen,
312 pp., $16.99
By Jessica Brody
Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 320 pp., $17.99
Meredith Goldstein can be reached at email@example.com.