We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson is a remarkable account about the coming of age of Henry Jerome Denton from his perspective as a much-persecuted 13-year-old. The reader will have to read most of the novel before discovering the complete name of this protagonist. Through most of the novel, he will be identified with the name “Space Boy,” a title he despises. This is not a whining, complaining account; it is delivered more from a position of resignation, hints of despair, and an acceptance of the inevitability that the world will end on 29 January 2016. Since that is a given, absolutely nothing that happens prior to that point has any meaning. The only possible alternative will occur if the aliens convince Space Boy to hit the Big Red Button. Without Henry’s agreement to do this, planet Earth will cease to exist
Published in January 2016, this 465-page novel has two central anchoring ideas. The entire novel is an account of Henry’s life for one year prior to 29 January 2016. The daily events happening to and around him will influence his decision to push the Big Red Button. If he pushes it, planet Earth continues; if Henry’s despair is so great and he does nothing, the Earth ceases to exist. Only Henry knows this. It is not that it is a secret, he has tried to tell others about his frequent abductions by the aliens as they continue to check with Henry and emphasize that the decision is completely Henry’s to make. Henry’s attempts at telling others has earned him the name “Space Boy.”
With such a serious decision to make, readers might think it would be a good idea to keep Henry happy. That brings us to the second anchoring point that appears throughout the novel, the suicide of Jesse. Henry loved his boyfriend and believes that he, Henry, was responsible for his boyfriend’s death. Henry is bullied in school both for his belief in aliens (Space Boy) and for his openly homosexual relationship that he had enjoyed with Jesse. One of the biggest bullies is a very rich high school athlete, Marcus. This appears quite strange because Marcus and Space Boy are in a covert homosexual relationship that developed as Henry tried to find a substitute friend to fill the void resulting from Jesse’s suicide. The many, many incidents of school bullying center more on the alien factor than the homosexual one.
This novel explores the issue of homosexual relationships in a way that is the best I have ever read by not exploring it. Throughout the novel, there is simply an acceptance of Henry’s lifestyle choice. His mother accepts it and even wants to have a safe-sex talk with him. Audrey, the closest person to Henry that might be called a girlfriend, accepts Henry’s choice. That is probably because she was a best friend to Henry and Jesse before the suicide and she was aware of the boys’ relationship. Because Henry blames himself for Jesse’s suicide, he has withdrawn from even the platonic relationship he had with Audrey. Audrey is sad about this and tries throughout the story to rekindle their earlier relationship. The reader will learn (not a spoiler) that Audrey also feels guilty because she believes she was the reason for the suicide. Even Henry’s grandmother, Nana, accepts Henry’s choice when she can remember to think about it. She is suffering from Alzheimer disease; her struggle is an important story-within-a-story and contributes wonderful insights on the progression of life.
Marcus as the choice to fill the void of the dead Jesse could not continue as a relationship with Henry. One-half of the time spent in satisfactory sex contrasted with the second-half of the relationship spent in administering punishing physical violence to Henry was a bomb waiting to go off. Luckily for Henry, the arrival at school of a new guy, Diego Vega, provided an alternative. Starting out on a very platonic and intellectual relationship, there were signs that a sexual component would evolve. The conflict here was that Diego (also called Valentin) had a deep, dark secret that he refused to reveal to Henry. All Henry’s attempts to question Diego were rebuffed. Google searches about Diego’s life before Henry returned no results. Honesty and openness were important to Henry; nothing could proceed without a transparent base of honesty and full disclosure.
The character interactions in the book are brilliant as they engage in dialogues defining their relationships. Henry mentions that he loves his brother, Charlie, because he has to but as far as daily life, Henry despises his brother. As the novel progresses, Henry finds that he didn’t really know much about Charlie. Henry engages in dialogues with Nana despite her frequent mental absences when she is not sure who he is. Henry’s advice to his mother on life choices is ironic and is the one point where I had to almost suspend belief. How can a person this young make such great, deeply philosophical observations? I found myself using a highlighter frequently as Henry made observations that were stunning philosophically stated with such simplicity.
There are some really great “outtakes.” These are chapters depicting how Planet Earth might disappear for reasons other than Henry failing to hit the Big Red Button.
This is one of the books I recommend highly for all ages (mostly 12 and up). Young people will empathize with the depictions of classroom life. The sexual angle is done with no sleaze and no unnecessary referencing. The importance of strong family relationships is emphasized even though Henry’s family appears to be the definition of dysfunctional.
And then there is THE QUESTION. Did Henry push the Big Red Button?