Sharon Pywell

"What Happened to Henry"

(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie SEP 5, 2005)

"One thing Ishiru and I shared was our deep knowledge of work's sweetness. How pleasant, how full of light and generosity, were the hours we spent at out trades. We made the world more beautiful, and this is a great thing. 

"Here in the Void, in the Kingdom of the Dead, I have no work. I wander and look, and I think I search for Ishiru, because that is what any sane man who had lost her would do. But I am confused. From here I can do nothing; open nothing. I am at a distance, yet the sense of planes and dropping bombs remains lodged in me. I cannot remember the moment of my own death but I remember Ishiru's."

What Happened to Henry by Sharon Pywell

Sharon Pywell's beautifully crafted debut novel, What Happened To Henry, chronicles the lives of the three extraordinary Cooper siblings from early childhood through adulthood in 1960's post WWII USA. The book's recurrent theme is the powerful, haunting memory of the devastation at Hiroshima, in the aftermath of the atomic-bomb drop of 1945 that brought immediate or horrifically lingering death to more than 140,000 people. The A-bomb, which the Japanese called "pika-don," did not simply kill, maim and injure masses of people and destroy buildings. It obliterated all the living and the community of the living. It devastated society and wreaked havoc on the environment. This year, 2005, is the 60th anniversary of Hiroshima's and Nagasaki's annihilation. The subject is introduced into the narrative in a subtle manner, and gives one pause to reflect on the impact the atomic bomb had, not only on Japanese and US children, but on children everywhere, who grew up in the Cold War period, with threats of nuclear missile attacks as a backdrop to their lives.

The Coopers are a middle class family of devout Catholics who live in a the suburban community of Eleusis, NY. It is 1960. Lauren, the middle child, is having a problem getting through First Communion. She is the only nine year-old in the class. A "First Communion failure," this is the third time she repeats the curriculum but will hopefully receive the sacrament soon, along with her seven year-old classmates. She had been foiled on her initial attempt by multiple streptococcus infections. Her fate was sealed on her second shot by a bowl of salted peanuts she found lying on the kitchen table. Lauren had a momentary lapse of memory about fasting before receiving the host. Her older brother Henry witnessed her downfall, so she couldn't lie. Thus, she continues to study catechisms with the stern, feisty, ever practical Sister Leonarda, hoping to succeed and get it over with. Lauren really struggles with the logic and truth behind transubstantiation, martyrdom and heaven, especially when the sister makes pronouncements like, "Those who believe that they can evade judgment are generally struck down by trucks or disease before they can receive the sacrament of Extreme Unction." Lauren has good reason to question these beliefs, as the reader will discover.

Winston, the youngest Cooper is seven and a little hellion...or perhaps "tyrant" would be a more apropos description. When his wishes, which become his commands, are not fulfilled, or when his feelings are hurt, he dismantles everything in sight, and is quite effective in his destruction, being mechanically and electrically inclined. Winston compulsively takes the protective coverings off wall sockets and rewires everything. He is always absconding with his father's tools, like the hacksaw he smuggled into his bedroom to saw his bed's headboard in half. Annie Cooper, the children's mother, is distraught by her son's behavior and can never quite understand what possesses him. Warren Cooper, the family's father, an engineer working in the Research and Development department of a large defense corporation, admonishes his son for using a hacksaw to cut wood. He is upset that his son picked the wrong tool for the job. Lauren bitterly complains to older brother, Henry, that Winston gets away with murder.

Twelve year-old Henry is the family's pillar of strength and stability. Lauren adores him and depends on him emotionally for his wisdom, strength and level-headedness. She has a recurring nightmare in which she watches a man in a cornfield shoot Henry. The dream always ends with Lauren holding his body in her arms, thinking, "...I don't know the way. Her chest had felt as if it were being pulled to pieces, a sensation she imagined was what people meant when they used the expression "broken heart." Even the inscrutable Winston responds to his big brother. Other than being kind, insightful and creative, Henry is a normal pre-adolescent boy, who is into building model fighter airplanes from WWII. His collection hangs in his room in simulated fight patterns. He is a bit obsessed with looking at the photographs in a library book entitled, "Disaster, Disaster, Disaster," which graphically documents the horrors of the Hiroshima bomb. The picture he is most fascinated by is of a Japanese man with his arms outstretched, running toward a terribly burned woman - toward the blazing inferno caused by the bomb, not away from it.

In 1958 when the Cooper kids were ten, seven and five respectively, a terrible tragedy hit the family hard. By December, 1962, everyone had seemingly recovered from the emotional aftermath of the event which left them bereft. The Cooper method of getting their lives back on track is invariably to never mention the tragedy, any tragedy for that matter, never discuss it, and to repress, repress, repress. The three sibling, who were so looking forward to Christmas, have their holiday marred when Henry receives a powerful electric shock from an overheated record turntable and is rushed to the hospital. He sleeps for three days and awakens, seemingly none the worse for wear. Lauren learns differently shortly after he comes home.

Henry is experiencing a bizarre phenomenon - he has access to the thoughts of Suriya Asagao, a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing. Asagao died of leukemia several months afterwards, in 1946. Henry feels as if he is inside the man's head. Asagao, in fact, is not a man, but a spirit who wanders in the Void, in the Kingdom of the Dead. He suffers from the unbearable pain of loss. He searches continually for his beloved wife, Ishiru, the women he runs toward in the disaster book photograph. Asagao is unable to release himself from limbo until he lets go of Ishiru's memory. Meanwhile, Henry begins to speak Japanese, his syntax takes on foreign inflections, he acquires new knowledge about Japanese culture and Buddhism without studying these subjects, and is able to describe, in great detail, life in prewar Hiroshima.

The novel poignantly portrays the siblings banding together to protect Henry and Asagao, (who becomes like an invisible adopted brother to them), from being discovered. They know from prior experience that when they answer psychiatrists' questions truthfully, Henry is taken away to spend time in an institution and medicated until he can no longer think clearly. The reader follows the three Coopers through college, marriage and children in this extraordinary and most unusual tale.

Ms. Pywell's prose is extremely lyrical. This is truly a beautifully written novel. And the author really does pull off Henry and Asagao communing in the spirit world to such an extent that their relationship becomes more realistic than any diagnosis of pathological illness. The characters of the three siblings are exceptionally well drawn, and the emotional ties that bind them together are complex and moving. Whatever Happened To Henry is an absolutely compelling, life affirming book about family ties, love, faith, the enduring quality of history - and about a repertory dance company and beautiful Japanese religious ceremonies, both Buddhist and Shinto. There is also lots of humor here and I found myself laughing out loud. I also cried through a few pages.

Fellow avid readers, this should be at the top of yout TBR list. A definite must read. You will thank me for the recommendation!

  • Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews


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About the Author:

Sharon Pywell has been published in Antioch Review, Western Humanities Review, Southern Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review. A former MacDowell Fellow, she currently teaches in the Boston metropolitan area.

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