For last month’s book club, we read We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it. It’s a fantastic book that deals with many heavy topics like depression, suicide, divorce, and so much more. If you’re looking for a lighthearted story to read before bed, this is probably not what you’re looking for.
A less than likable main character… and yet (summary)
To give a quick summary of the story, we’re actually reading from a journal (or possibly many) written by the main character Henry Denton. Henry is dealing with the aftermath of his parent’s divorce, his father abandoning him, his boyfriend Jesse’s suicide, and way too much more. Through it all, Henry is often abducted by aliens he calls Sluggers, who give him a choice. He can press a button to save the world or not press it and let the Earth be destroyed.
Henry is a complex character struggling to make it through high school while the world around him is falling apart (metaphorically at least). He’s bullied in school and dealing with an abusive relationship with one of his most aggressive bullies on top of everything else.
Throughout everything that happens, Henry is looking for reasons to press the button. He asks nearly every person he talks to if they would press a button to save the Earth or not. They all say they would (one says it might depend on the day), but still, he hesitates because he’s struggling to find a reason to continue living in such a messed-up world.
To be honest, in the beginning, Henry wasn’t the most likable character. He was giving off a lot of angsty teenager “you wouldn’t understand” vibes. The more you learn about him and his struggles, though, the easier it is to understand him.
Henry has had a lot going on and faced a heck of a lot of trauma at a young age. He also hasn’t had anyone in his corner either. The few people he thought he could rely on either left him in his time of need or committed suicide. You can’t really blame him for being reluctant to keep going. So to be fair to him, I don’t know how many people really could understand him.
An allegory for pain and depression after loss (review)
We Are the Ants is an amazing look into the deteriorating mental health many young people are facing. They may not all have it quite as hard as Henry did. Still, according to the American Psychological Association, 15–21 year-olds are more likely to face mental health crises than older generations. In fact, over 90% of them already have.
Given all the pain and suffering Henry has been through, it’s fascinating to interpret the Sluggers as a reflection of his mental health. The alien abductions, in my opinion, are a form of escapism for him when he can’t handle what’s going on in his life. That’s why a visit from the Sluggers follows many stressful events.
In one scene, even Henry isn’t sure if they’re real or not despite being entirely convinced up to that point that the abductions were real. If the Sluggers aren’t real, though, and are just in Henry’s head, what’s the point of the button, you may be asking yourself. I believe that if he hadn’t decided to push the button, the world might not have ended, but Henry sure would have.
I couldn’t say why aliens are the form Henry’s brain chose to reflect his pain. Maybe because he was so into science and space, maybe because that was the best way for him to distance himself from what was going on, perhaps it’s just because Hutchinson thought it would make for a good story. Whatever the reason, the Sluggers certainly add some sci-fi to an otherwise realistic story.
A really cool thing about the story is the rippling effects of each event. There isn’t a single event that affects only Henry, and everyone deals with them in their own way. Diego paints, Mrs. Denton cooks, Charlie usually resorts to violence (not a very healthy coping mechanism), Nana plays piano, Marcus drinks. They’re all shown as real people with real problems and very different ways of processing their trauma.
We Are the Ants is an incredible story dealing with how people muddle on when life is horrible.
So… Would you press the button? (rating)
If I haven’t made it clear yet, I really love this book. It’s so heart-wrenching to read about everything all the characters have had to go through. You cannot convince me that the moral of the story isn’t that everyone needs to go to therapy.
Even though it’s technically a YA book, I’m not sure I would have been able to understand as much of it if I were the same age as Henry and his friends. Maybe I just hadn’t been through enough struggle to understand how beaten down life can get you yet, but when I was 16, I probably wouldn’t have hesitated to push the button. Now that I’m older and wiser (a little bit at least), I get why the decision might be so hard to make.
I give We Are the Ants 5 out of 5 burnt Thanksgiving turkeys.
If you’re looking for another book recommendation, this month, we’re reading The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami, or you can pick up one of our previous book club picks. We read all kinds of genres and are always looking for recommendations too.
Would you press the button?