BookBrowse Reviews We Are the Ants by Shaun Hutchinson

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We Are the Ants

by Shaun Hutchinson

We Are the Ants by Shaun Hutchinson X
We Are the Ants by Shaun Hutchinson
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jan 2016, 464 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2017, 480 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez

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A teenage boy must decide whether or not the world is worth saving. Ages 14+

Despite the fact that I am not, as a rule, a fan of magical realism, I totally loved this book by Shaun David Hutchinson about a gay, nerdy teenager who – while struggling to define himself - is serially abducted by aliens.

With the fate of the world on his shoulders, sixteen-year-old Henry Denton has become the most memorable young adult protagonist I've ever met. He is going through an adolescent existential crisis of epic proportions and he's handling it with all the grace and style he can muster. But with less than two decades of life experience to call on, what he can marshal just isn't enough. It made me want to step into the pages of the book, take him in my arms and hug him, tell him that it would all be okay in the end. But Henry needs to learn that on his own.

Still, the copious issues that Henry has to deal with – loss, bullying, mental illness, aging, suicide, divorce, grief, friendship, love, to name the major ones – put Hutchinson's skill to the test. He passes with flying colors, but not without making this book a hefty read at over 400 pages. However all credit due to Hutchinson, he takes no literary easy fixes, no shortcuts or deus ex machina solutions. Henry's personal growth occurs organically, one tiny light bulb at a time.

Life has clearly given Henry more than his fair share of problems, several real kicks to the gut. First of all he's gay. Which, in the whole scheme things, is actually the least of his problems. Truth be told, it's barely a problem at all, except for the beatings/beratings Henry endures from school bullies that pick on him less for his gayness than for his perpetual shroud of victim-ness. "I could write my name across the sky, and it would be in invisible ink."

What is a bigger problem is that his father has just up and abandoned the family with absolutely no explanation. When I say abandoned I mean he is nowhere in the picture, with no apparent presence other than the occasional poignant memory. Another problem is that Henry's chain-smoking mom has her hands so full trying to keep the family – Henry, elder brother Charlie, Charlie's live-in girlfriend Zooey, and their maternal grandmother Nana – financially afloat that the effort is sapping all that remains of her parental reserves:

I wanted to tell her she'd know what was going on with me if she'd only ask, but she was so concerned with Charlie and Nana, or too tired from working to bother with me. Aliens abduct me, and she pretends I'm sleepwalking. My boyfriend [Jesse] killed himself, and we don't even talk about it. Like my father, Jesse's name just disappeared from her vocabulary.

Furthermore, Nana is careening into advanced Alzheimer's faster than the family can adequately care for her. And the great (first) love of Henry's life, Jesse Franklin, has committed suicide. Even a promising new friendship with handsome Diego Vega comes with confusing messages about whether it is just a friendship or could blossom into a romance.

In the face of all this is it any wonder that Henry is having problems? The alien abductions don't help – or maybe they do, in an indirect way. The "sluggers" – their skin is slug-colored – abduct him at random times, then they unceremoniously dump him, nearly naked, often far from his Calypso, Florida home. While in their custody Henry is given the option to press a red button, which they say will save the planet from total obliteration on January 29, 2016. Choosing not to press the button ensures the end of the world. He is given multiple opportunities to exercise his power, yet Henry keeps stalling, lamenting not only the state of his own life but of the world at large, and he asks nearly everyone he knows whether they would save the world from destruction if they had the option.

I will have to admit that because I am so literal-minded, the aliens bothered me at first. I just wanted them to either be real or, like Scrooge's interpretation of Marley's ghost, some mental manifestation of "an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato;" or a brain tumor; or something. But everything else about this book is so good – and Hutchinson handles it so well – that I just went with it. So please don't let the magical realism thing turn you away. The aliens serve a legitimate purpose in Henry's search for his raison d'être. The story wouldn't be as good without them. And that is as high a recommendation as I can give. Because even though this novel is not from a genre that I normally enjoy, I truly adored this one.

Reviewed by Donna Chavez

This review was originally published in January 2016, and has been updated for the May 2017 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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