Vermont Reads 2021: We Contain Multitudes
Our Vermont Reads choice for 2021 is a novel in letters. It tells the paired stories of two very different teenage boys who are initially reluctant to participate in a pen-pal assignment from their high school English teacher, but ultimately grow well beyond the boundaries of the school project to reveal earth-shattering revelations about themselves and their families.
The novel contains many strands relevant to current community conversations including economic disparities, how veterans return from war, domestic violence, opioid addiction, bullying, and coming out. But lest it sound too heavy, it is also a beautiful story of friendship, poetry, coming of age, and aspiring to move beyond social expectations.
We Contain Multitudes is a novel of brave heart, told with snap and style. As the protagonists write mandatory letters to each other, we come to realize the letters are also both to themselves as writers—to chart their maturing—and to us as their unseen champions.
Canadian writer Sarah Henstra says she was inspired to write We Contain Multitudes by her own teenage kids, and how they communicate with each other and their friends, especially around complicated issues. She succeeds in capturing the wonderful, difficult, scary, joyful, and curious events that make up the lives of the two main characters, teenagers Jonathan Hopkirk and Adam Kurlansky.
As a bonus, the novel is also a lovely interweaving of the work of two great figures in American arts and letters – 19th century poet Walt Whitman and rock superstar Prince.
We Contain Multitudes is a book that definitely contains multitudes. It is about love, friendship, survival, loss, grief, bullying, family/domestic violence, a veteran’s PTSD, and a growing relationship between two boys. We are aware that for some participants, these multitudes may be challenging. Vermont Humanities has partnered with organizations that can help you. They are Outright Vermont, The Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence’s Youth Advocacy Task Force, the Howard Center, and Recovery Vermont. Each of these organizations is prepared to offer resources and assistance in partnership with Vermont Humanities.
You will point out, of course, that everyone wears a different face at school. And you’ll point out the extent to which I have trouble switching faces explains much about how I get treated at school. You’ll be right on both counts. But somehow with you the change is more extreme, like two different people. I wonder, Kurl, when you look in the mirror, do you ever get to see the unguarded face? Because I wish you could. It’s a wonder to behold.
Important Resources on Addiction, Recovery, and Family Resilience
Many families in Vermont are struggling to recover from the devastating effects of addiction to alcohol, heroin, methamphetamines and other drugs, just like some of the characters in We Contain Multitudes. Addiction is a disease, not a personal failing, and there are many community resources that can help families struggling with the impact of this epidemic.
About Sarah Henstra
Sarah Henstra is a professor of English at Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario, and the author of two previous novels, Mad Miss Mimic and The Red Word, which won the Governor General’s Literary Award in Canada.
Ms. Henstra will be available to participate in a limited number of Vermont Reads projects via Zoom throughout the program year, please contact us for details.
Dear Little Jo,
I’m aware that I keep coming back to these topics that have nothing to do with anything. These letters I’m writing are starting to feel like one long ongoing letter in my head. I should tell Jo about that time I saw the Red Eft, I’ll think, or, I forgot to tell Jo that these birds actually look really magnificent in the sky. And then I’ll read one of your letters and think, People have no idea what I’m like. I mean the gap between what people see and what’s actually in my head sort of shocks me when I read your letters. I guess everyone has this gap. It’s just that they don’t come face-to-face with it very often….
We Contain Multitudes is a story about people who lived, loved, and lost. It’s not a YA book that fantasizes romance, but discovers it through the lens of heartbreak, hope, and growth. No matter what age you are, love can be as devastating as it is fulfilling. This book reminds us that healing isn’t always a straight line but a winding path to love again.
Vermont Reads Supporters
Vermont Humanities is grateful to the underwriter of Vermont Reads 2021, Jan Blomstrann, and for the support of the Jack & Dorothy Byrne Foundation.