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Walt Whitman was a Homosexual, Probably (Book Review: We Contain Multitudes)


We Contain Multitudes Cover Art

Review: We Contain Multitudes


Sarah Henstra

Fiction

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, pp. 385

$12.32 (hc), $4.99 (eb)

Picture this: You’re in line for a new roller-coaster. It looks like a pretty simple ride—should be a nice time. There are no loopty-loops, no upside-downs, no missing sections of the track where you just hope and pray. So, you strap in, and you take off. For a moment, it’s just as you saw. But then, the track unexpectedly leads through some trees, revealing to you there are more loopty-loops and upside downs and death traps than any coaster you’ve been on before. You yell: “Oh no, this isn’t a normal roller-coaster! I’m on an emotional roller-coaster!” Hold on.


That’s the feeling of reading We Contain Multitudes by Sarah Henstra. Yes, it is the typical YA gay-boy set-up; there’s the quieter boy who loves poetry, there’s the jock with a soft side, and they fall in love. Nothing ground-breaking there. However, what’s refreshing is how the book structures its story-telling. Johnathon and Kurl, the two main characters, begin assigned to each other as pen-pals for English class. The narrative is told through their alternating letters, keeping it fast-pace and refreshing the voice as it switches between the two.


The reader, anytime Johnathon gets unbashfully sexual and free with his body.

Speaking of the voice, what’s really nice is how distinct each of their writing styles are. Johnathon writes how you’d expect your English teacher to write (except he’s only in 10th grade, so you can imagine how hilarious Kurl finds it). His personality is ripped straight from Walt Whitman (and we all know he was a homosexual, probably), but Johnathon is also a secret mastermind in seduction and she worship him. Kurl begins in the tone you might expect from a jock—dismissive, mildly aggressive and sarcastic—but quickly reveals his character through the subtle care he begins to write his letters with, distilling story and raw emotion onto the page.


We stan the way these two characters beautifully complement each other, almost feeling their pulse on the page. As they begin to describe their blossoming romance, they become our true OTP…until, you know, something unpleasant of course hits the fan.


That’s the thing about this book: It gives, and then it takes a sledgehammer and bashes it, and bashes you, and bashes you family, and bashes your cow. Welcome to the town of “Everything should get better in a few pages, right?” But it doesn’t.


Sad gif
The reader, about 3/4 the way through the book.

That’s not at all a bad thing, though. It’s quite cathartic—or at least it has the potential to be for some. While I can only talk about my personal experience with the book, I will say that I had some trouble with how it portrays manipulative and unhealthy relationships. At multiple points, one character shows a very dark side of himself and releases it on the other. At this point, you may be yelling for this victim to “LEAVE! YOU IN DANGER, GURL!” However, the book walks the dangerous line between trying to portray real-life issues in relationships, and delivering on a happy ending. Which, in this case, just leaves the reader predicting more problems in the future and feeling like one person was able to be a manipulative and abusive a**hole for a while then get away with no repercussions. And, more importantly, a very perfect, special and “holy hell we love him” character is left in this relationship because (in my reading) he is young and believes he’ll never love again like he loves right now. It’s romanticizing unhealthy relationships, and I have a problem with that.


But! I still very much enjoyed this read. I was left disappointed with the ending, but the novel as a whole was an emotional roller coaster I’ll never forget. I give We Contain Multitudes by Sarah Henstra 4 out of 5 stars.

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