Ah, parenthood. Nothing challenges or rewards a person like raising children. For some it comes easily, or at least a little more naturally. Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson contains a story of parenthood gone bad, or pursued with less than the necessary commitment. Although it focuses on the lives of a few teens during the punk rock movement of the 1980s, this truly is a story of one generation’s attempt to set right its fumbled of responsibilities to the next.
At story’s outset, protagonist Jude turns 16, it’s New Year’s Eve, and he and his close friend Teddy have soaked a stolen pair of silk panties in turpentine so they can inhale the fumes and get a faint, short-lived high. This is the desperate pass they have come to, since they don’t have any money for their preferred drug, pot. Harriet, Jude’s adoptive mother, manages a weak and hopeless rearing of Jude, which features by turns wheedling and subservience. Teddy’s mother has simply picked up and left her 15-year-old high school sophomore. Eliza is a kind of a cousin to Jude, and she arrives for New Year’s, and the three wait around before heading to a party. The events of the party, tragic and life-altering, set the direction for the book.
The trials of these luckless teens as they face very adult issues of drug overdose, pregnancy, and surviving society’s prejudices against a teen culture out of control, form the meat of this book. Teddy’s older brother Johnny (he’s all of 18 and making it in New York as a tattoo artist and musician) guides Jude into the Straight Edge subculture of the punk rock scene, where drugs and sex are forbidden. Johnny’s motives with Jude and Eliza are pure, but there is more than meets the eye with Johnny.
This strong story features gritty, realistic details, and hearkens us back to the mid-80s punk scene, and the random violence perpetrated by and against its adherents. There are coming-of-age elements for Jude, and hope for our principals as they mature, but the real caution is for those among us who would have and raise children: neglect your duties and peril will descend upon all. It contains elements as well of an 80s pastiche: neglectful, drug-distracted hippy parents, punk violence, Hare Krishna adherents. Its style mirrors that of punk music, too: straight-on, honest, sometimes brutal. This book aims to shed light on sweeping movements of the mid-80s in music and society, by showing their effects on a small number of young people. It succeeds at these aims admirably. The straight ahead, gruff language belies the human warmth and compassion that shows through in the sympathetic portrayals of its characters.