Henry's mom has given him up to the state after he hurt her in an argument. He feels cast out of his home and is angry with the world. He has dyslexia, a debilitating stutter that makes him not talk, a clubfoot that makes him limp, and a long history of being bullied at school. When he meets foster mother, Emily, he learns kindness and begins to feel at home for the first time, especially with the farm animals. He longs for a friend, and is deeply hurt by rejection. He has anger management issues and the adults are misguided in their dealings with him. In the prologue, Fridrik Erlings reveals this as a tale of redemption for him and a chance for him to right a past wrong. Beautifully written and moving, it shows a boy's difficult journey to self-acceptance.
Two older boys, Mark and John, come to the farm, along with a younger kind boy, Ollie, that upset Henry's provisional peace. Tensions mount as Mark and John manipulate Henry so they can have a secret party with some local girls. The two boys want to escape the isolation of the farm and seek Henry's help. However, it is Ollie that threatens Henry the most for he draws Emily's attention away from Henry. Worse, Ollie hounds the illiterate Henry asking him to read. Henry does everything he can to avoid doing that and it leads to a tragic climax.
Henry doesn't speak and most of the narration is his inner monologue where he agonizes over making friends and being rejected. He is incredibly lonely finding the farm animals his closest friends. He thinks John is becoming a friend, but that changes when Mark comes to the farm. Emily helps him feel at home, but when Ollie shows up, Emily gives him her undivided attention making Henry feel lonely again. The imagery of sacrificial lambs is rich in symbolism from the animals to the people. Just like Christ died on the cross and had to be in total darkness cut off from God to take on humankind's sins, Henry feels the darkness of his anger and being cut off from others in relationships. He calls the boys at the farm children of lust and wonders if that is why the world rejects them.
The Reverend uses corporal punishment and religion to be an authoritarian figure. Even the name he has chosen for the boys, "Home of the Lesser Brethren," shows an attitude of superiority and not compassion. He bullies those around him and has no clue what it means to love another human like himself. He even preaches the gospel in a way that suits his needs. He says that when the boys misbehave they are being overtaken by the devil and the Reverend has to punish the devil in them. He punishes anyone who speaks up and questions his authority even if it is done respectfully. He makes them rebuild an altar of stones all night long to get the devil out of them or pray locked up in a boiler room.
History shows over and over people that use religion to justify actions that are contrary to the gospels; they will murder, oppress, and abuse people in God's name. The Reverend is like this. He preaches that the devil was cast out of heaven because God asked him to worship men. However, Satan was actually cast out because he wanted to replace the one true God. Ironically the real Gospel story is a warning about pride, but the haughty Reverend has baptized himself in pride missing the meaning of the scriptures. Tragically, he is a man that does not know how to love others. He just wants to rule and control the boys at the farm. Unable to love his wife, he doesn't ask anyone's opinion and is a hell and brimstone preacher. His goal is to build a church, but he does so at the expense of his marriage. On the day of his first sermon he realizes that he has lost his wife's love to Ollie and expresses regret to Henry.
The character development is particularly well-done in this book. All of them are metaphorically pushed to the edge of the cliff in their relationships. Mark wants to keep running and won't face his past or accept himself. John is pained by his parents abandoning him to the point that he suffers depression. Ollie tries to deal with the death of his parents by quoting poetry to get rid of bad memories. The Reverend does not nurture his marriage. Emily loses the twenty boys she loves because of the Reverend's need for a church. And Henry desperately wants a friend and must learn to love himself.
Emily tries to get Henry to read "The Little Prince," but he throws it over a cliff. Later Ollie tries to get him to read the same book because he wants to hear about the fox. The fox gives advice in the book on human relationships such as, "One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eyes." The fox also talks about a rose and it being special because it was the object of the prince's love. This ties in with the author's prologue where we discover he is Ollie in the story and Henry was a boy he didn't talk to for twenty years in real life. Instead Henry died and Ollie read his notebooks only to discover that he was the rose in Henry's life because he introduced him to books and it was through literature and writing that Henry found acceptance and peace.
This complex book might appeal to adults more than kids. The swear word "sh**" is used quite a bit and might offend some readers depending on personal taste. I thought it got repetitious with the description of the animal's defecating, but I did think it made the two older boys conversation more authentic when they were using it. While the book is dark there are moments of humor and lightness. The suicide attempt, violence, and abuse make this young adult, but they are not graphic. Henry's confusion and emotional turmoil should keep readers on the edge of their seats.