Ten Thousand Saints

book by Eleanor Henderson

annotation by Kate Maruyama

My study of multiple character POV stories and pure impulsive curiosity led me to Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints and I’m very glad it did. It’s the story of a handful of teenagers wandering through a shaky time in their lives, careening off their various tracks and into each other. This makes it sound like a story that would meander in its telling, one of those coming of age tomes that becomes too enamored of its self-reflection to stay on track. But it’s not.

Henderson brings order to the structure and gives us life, up close, and characters we can grab a hold of. She manages to maintain tension throughout the book with action, ticking clocks and the subtle pattern she creates in the movement through the various voices telling their stories. When each new voice comes in, it is so close, nailed down with internal thoughts and observations, that the larger story becomes seamless. Henderson also has the deft ability to make her characters’ voices change as they grow and become more aware of life around them.

We open with Jude, lost in his small town moderately drug-abusing Vermont lifestyle with his best friend Teddy. When Eliza, Jude’s father’s girlfriend’s daughter (the obscurity of the relationship only emphasizes the delicate web of chance and relationships that drives these characters’ lives) comes to town, it results in Teddy’s accidental death which drives all of the players into a downward spiral and something else which ends up throwing Eliza and Jude together with Teddy’s brother, Johnny in a fully realized New York City of the 1980s.

Nothing is an accident and Henderson navigates a very human landscape of the ever changing definition of family, chance meetings, and that slippery world of growing up which can lead a boy from drug abuse to the hare krishnas to near marriage and out the other end into the beginning of life. She touches on history without proselytizing, bringing us the Tompkins Square riot of 1988 and the spectre of AIDS casting its shadow on New York.

Henderson slides smoothly in and out of POVs and miraculously avoids the pitfalls of multi-POV stories, keeping us engaged with each new page.  Even a brief departure into Jude’s mother’s POV is so carefully drawn and close that there is no worry in leaving the other characters: Henderson makes each page the place where you, as a reader, want to dwell.

It’s a challenge, while telling several different stories at once (as I am doing in my current novel) to maintain tension without using artificial means. I can only think that Henderson worked incredibly hard in the editing process, reshuffling and ordering the story until it felt right. She has the help of the ticking clock of a pregnancy and various smaller situations exploding in various characters’ lives, but we do jump around in time here or there, taking steps back into a prior day, or week,  or jumps forward.  It’s as if she approached the book musically. While it makes narrative sense, those little jumps in time and consciousness would be disorienting without a larger attention to rhythm and pace.  There is not a moment wasted in this tight, close novel.

As I go into a thorough rewrite of a rough draft of my novel, I hope to take out everything that is inessential, and perhaps to shuffle the deck a little, see if different parts of the story might go together for reasons greater than timing or chronology.  And most of all, I need to make sure that each characters’ voice is close and fully present in his or her section—to remember to pay attention to the world of the page.

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One thought on “Ten Thousand Saints

  1. It’s a challenge, while telling several different stories at once (as I am doing in my current novel) to maintain tension without using artificial means. I can only think that Henderson worked incredibly hard in the editing process, reshuffling and ordering the story until it felt right. She has the help of the ticking clock of a pregnancy and various smaller situations exploding in various characters’ lives, but we do jump around in time here or there, taking steps back into a prior day, or week,  or jumps forward.  It’s as if she approached the book musically. While it makes narrative sense, those little jumps in time and consciousness would be disorienting without a larger attention to rhythm and pace.  There is not a moment wasted in this tight, close novel.
    +1

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