cover image Followed by the Lark

Followed by the Lark

Helen Humphreys. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 (240p) ISBN 978-0-374-61149-1

Canadian writer Humphreys (Rabbit Foot Bill) paints an impressionistic portrait of Henry David Thoreau as a young man in the 1830s. After a stint on Staten Island, where he tutored a nephew of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau returns dejected and grief-stricken to the family home in Concord, Mass. The older sister of a former student has rejected his marriage proposal, and his older brother, John, has died suddenly. In Concord, Thoreau works in his father’s pencil factory when not spending time “botanizing” in the woods or hiking and camping. His abolitionist and Transcendentalist neighbors provide a lively intellectual milieu, though he’s discomfited by Emerson’s criticism of his inward nature. Without overpsychoanalyzing her subject, Humphreys gently suggests that Thoreau’s passionate yet chaste attachments to male friends may have concealed his sexuality. Descriptions of seasons changing and other nature scenes become repetitive, though many are arresting in their beauty. The characterization of Thoreau also shines; Humphreys captures his ambivalence toward humankind and his devotion to the great outdoors, his loneliness and moments of elated connection, and his joking exchanges and one-word shorthand with his younger sister, Sophia, a fellow amateur botanist and sketch artist who seems to understand him better than anyone else. Humphreys ably demonstrates the enduring appeal of her subject. Agent: Claire Alexander, Aitken Alexander Assoc. (Feb.)