Pride Reads: “We Contain Multitudes” by Sarah Henstra
Inspired by a queer romance panel at BookCon and in honor of Pride Month, I’ve resolved to only read LGBTQ+ books during the month of June and write up a post for each book that I read. First on my list is We Contain Multitudes by Sarah Henstra.
We Contain Multitudes is the story of Jonathan (Jo) Hopkirk and Adam (Kurl) Kurlinsky, two teenagers who attend the same high school and get paired as pen pals for an English assignment. Jo, a sophomore, is obsessed with Walt Whitman; Kurl, a senior, is a football player. The novel is in epistolary format as Jo and Kurl write each other letters throughout the school year, and through their letters we see them meet, fall in love, and deal with a whole host of family drama.
I love epistolary novels, and this book is full of some exquisitely written ones, with beautiful prose and snippets of poetry (the title is a Whitman reference) and a wonderful, romantic sense of character and atmosphere. I love epistolary novels, but these two characters occupy the same space. They interact with each other, and it doesn’t make sense for one of them to write up their interaction and send it to the other in a letter. They were there. They know.
There are a lot of heavy issues touched up on We Contain Multitudes. Jo is constantly bullied both for being gay and for the way he dresses (as a major Whitman fanboy, he dresses in vintage clothes). Kurl is abused by his uncle (who is also his stepfather) and has anger issues as a result. Despite the drama, I really enjoyed the first three-quarters or so of the book. But in the last part, the drama just got exponentially heavier, with Jo learning the horrible truth about his mother and Kurl getting outed to his homophobic uncle, who promptly kicks him out. Jo’s sister Shayna is a terrible human being who essentially ruins everyone’s lives, and there are some gray issues regarding consent that are never properly dealt with.
This isn’t a happy book, but it’s not quite a sad one, either. It’s simply an example of the capacity we have to hurt each other, even the people we love, and the importance of honesty and open communication. The ending is very bittersweet, and I think it’s meant to hopeful, but I worry for these characters because I don’t think they adequately dealt with all of the crap that life threw at them in the last quarter of the novel.
We Contain Multitudes by Sarah Henstra is published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers and is currently available wherever books are sold.
Author: Jamie Sugah
Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, which is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.
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