Zainab Shafqat Adiil
In Sarah Henstra’s powerful novel “We Contain Multitudes,” trying to mix Jo and Karl together would be like trying to blend water and oil. On paper, that is.
Walt Whitman influences every aspect of Jo’s life, from his vibrantly colored blazers to his everyday speech.
On the other hand, Karl is a mysterious and, at times, dark ex-football player who was kicked off his team. He is the definition of a lone wolf, and very few can infiltrate his bubble.
This unlikely pair would never have been created if it were not for an obligatory English class pen-pal assignment.
Jo and Karl’s letters were initially reserved; they stayed within the confines of their social standings.
Karl commented on Jo’s use of formal punctuation and the fact that he had most of Walt Whitman’s poems memorized.
Jo would overanalyze Karl, asking him personal questions about the murmurs he heard in the halls, getting vague responses in return.
Yet, before they knew it, their life stories were unfolding in the letters. Jo’s mom passed away when he was little, and he is now being raised by his punk rock father and bombshell of a sister. Karl is being raised by his mom and abusive uncle, a couple created out of a widow’s sorrow.
This unique way of storytelling lends itself to exquisite character development. It was all too easy to become attached to Jo’s unapologetically endearing and vulnerable mannerisms as well as Karl’s defensive and layered personality.
Soon, Karl becomes family friends with Jo’s family, going over to his house every weekend. In addition, Jo and Karl start writing more than the necessary one letter a week to each other, turning the assignment into a daily affair. Inevitably, the title “family friends” becomes a façade for something deeper and much more threatening: intense, all consuming love and confronting one’s sexuality.
Jo is openly and confidently gay. However, Karl does not fit a single gay stereotype. Through fumbling and awkward experiences that only Jo would have the patience for, Karl ran straight into his sexuality like a brick wall.
As Karl and Jo learn and grow together, completely and hopelessly intertwined, the reader has the ability to learn with them. Henstra gives her readers the opportunity to reflect inward, making everyone involved vulnerable and nervous.
Jo and Karl end up creating a world only visible to them. It’s a world where every touch is electric, every moment is cherished, emotions are heightened and time moves fast and slow. As the character’s hearts get noticeably jerked around on the pages, as if on a roller coaster, I felt jostled right along with them.
I couldn’t help but read this book for hours on end; it’s the type that stays glued to your hands. However, I had to stand up and walk around my room every 30 minutes to keep my heart rate in check. Just like Jo and Karl, I was feeling every emotion at once. Only a few books have had this effect on me, so when I find one that does, I never want to let it go.
You don’t have to be a hopeless romantic, gay, heartbroken or come from a distorted family to find yourself falling into “We Contain Multitudes.” The themes are incredibly relatable, and Henstra left a noticeable indent on my heart.
This book is proof that love is love, no matter who it’s between or what shape it takes.