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Good Literature for Children & Adults

Henry, Himself by Stewart O’Nan


What a delight it was to read Henry, Himself the third of Stewart O’Nan’s novels to feature the Maxwell family.

This time the story is told by Henry, now in his 75th year of life. Henry is long retired, a faithful and loving husband to his wife, Emily - well trained by now. Henry still adores his wife, and he is in every way a gentleman. Henry and Emily are the parents of Margaret and Kenny, now middle aged parents themselves. Henry was born and raised in Pittsburgh and lives there still, but the place most important to Henry and all of the family is their summer home at Chautauqua.

As the novel opens we learn about Henry’s early years, his ancestors and his own immediate family. Then, over the period of about a year we witness family gatherings and celebrations, with all of the concerns and worries, and joys and sadness that come with being a family, all shared by those Henry loves.

We also see the intimate workings of a long and satisfying marriage between partners who treat each other with respect and manage their differences with civility. We see the day to day little things that created a bond long ago, and have endured through all of these years. This is the unspoken intimacy of simply sharing a life.

When spring comes, there is work in the garden, tasks divided between Henry and Emily as they have been for decades. They do what they have always done, though the aches and pains that come with age are showing. After a long day of working in the garden, Henry and Emily, “both took some Aleve and went to bed early.” “Emily liked the fresh air, so they slept with the windows open. At four when he got up to pee, the room was freezing.” A battle Henry has long ago given up fighting. He goes into the bathroom and stands on the heated floor.

Spring also finds Henry and Emily making plans to open the cottage at Chautauqua. It is by now a ritual, a habit, doing things in the same way year after year. Opening the cottage comes after all of the preparation at home, the loading of the car, being sure not to feed the dog so that he will not be sick on the long drive. The stops along the way at familiar places, observing the changes, if any, on the route followed the same way every year.

Then their arrival. “Closed since Labor Day, the place smelled of must and mold, the air dank, as in a cave or basement, unpleasant yet familiar”.  “Upstairs Emily was opening windows. He went through the rear bedrooms doing the same”. They bring the heavy cooler in together, “Once he could have lifted it himself”. Henry looks after getting the pump going while Emily takes charge of the kitchen.

This is where Henry, and Emily, most belong. He wonders if his children feel the same, he wants them to, as he worries about the future. Then the long weekend, with children and grandchildren arriving. All the memories, and worries and sometimes conflict, spoken or unspoken. Days of activity, and then they are gone. Leaving only their parents worry behind. Often, Henry’s sister, Arlene will stay on, relaxing with Henry and Emily, sharing stories about their youth “without the children they could talk freely”. No secrets among such old friends, no matter that the children are now middle aged, fully adult.

There is so much in this novel about family and how we all behave with parents, and siblings and children. I was sorry to finish reading Henry, Himself and I immediately re-read the first two books in the trilogy, Wish You Were Here and Emily, Alone, enjoying them just as much as I did the first time around.



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