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Book Cover Image: Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor HendersonTitle: Ten Thousand Saints 

Author: Eleanor Henderson

Narrator: Steven Kaplan

Audiobook Length: 11 hours, 5 minutes

Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books):

“Adopted by a pair of diehard hippies, restless, marginal Jude Keffy-Horn spends much of his youth getting high with his best friend, Teddy, in their bucolic and deeply numbing Vermont town. But when Teddy dies of an overdose on the last day of 1987, Jude’s relationship with drugs and with his parents devolves to new extremes. Sent to live with his pot-dealing father in New York City’s East Village, Jude stumbles upon straight edge, an underground youth culture powered by the paradoxical aggression of hardcore punk and a righteous intolerance for drugs, meat, and sex. 

With Teddy’s half brother, Johnny, and their new friend, Eliza, Jude tries to honor Teddy’s memory through his militantly clean lifestyle. But his addiction to straight edge has its own dangerous consequences. While these teenagers battle to discover themselves, their parents struggle with this new generation’s radical reinterpretation of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll and their grown-up awareness of nature and nurture, brotherhood and loss.”

Thoughts: Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints is a subtle novel that could simplistically be described with a key theme of growing up but actually delves into so much more should the reader opt to do so. Jude, Eliza and Johnny are three kids who are just playing at being grown-up and mature. They put on a good front, but underneath, their feelings of loneliness and loss bring them together. The overwhelming air of sadness that permeates the novel only adds to each character’s melancholy and struggle to face reality. Ms. Henderson masterfully weaves the rebellion and loss that defines much of the novel in such a way that the end result is a story that ends on a note of hope – that even the most depressed, lost and lonely person can find love, acceptance, and happiness.

Ten Thousand Saints is reminscient of Less Than Zero with its huge focus on the drug and punk scene. Interestingly, socio-economic backgrounds provide no indication of whether one will be drawn into the drug scene. More importantly, while “straight edge” is the opposite of the drug scene, it is still a form of rebellion against society. All three characters are driven to action by the fear of the truth and anger at their respective parent(s). While their reasons differ, the end result is still a group of young adults who hide rather than face reality. Death – past, immediate, and future – along with birth – past and future – become the driving force behind each character’s metamorphasis into adulthood. Hiding behind the “scene” rather than confronting the truth is one key coping mechanism.

The narrator, Steven Kaplan, provides an understated performance that works well with the highly dramatic lives of the three protagonists. The differences in his portrayal of each character are subtle and yet effective as the differences in each character, outside of the obvious gender differences, are just as nuanced. This is one novel where added tension and drama is not necessary, and Mr. Kaplan avoids adding extraneous emotion to each character, playing up the boredom and lack of concern each character is trying so desperately to portray to the world. Mr. Kaplan’s simple approach to the narration of Ten Thousand Saints allows Ms. Henderson’s characters to speak for themselves.

In its storytelling, Ten Thousand Saints is poetic in its simplicity while unflinching in its harsh portrayal  of addicts of all kinds. Human redemption stands alongside human depravity to offer a brutally realistic and yet beautiful story of love and its power to save.

Thank you to Beth Harper from Harper Audio for my review copy!

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