We Contain Multitudes


By Sarah Henstra

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Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe meets I’ll Give You the Sun in an exhilarating and emotional novel about the growing relationship between two teenage boys, told through the letters they write to one another.


Jonathan Hopkirk and Adam “Kurl” Kurlansky are partnered in English class, writing letters to one another in a weekly pen pal assignment. With each letter, the two begin to develop a friendship that eventually grows into love. But with homophobia, bullying, and devastating family secrets, Jonathan and Kurl struggle to overcome their conflicts and hold onto their relationship…and each other.

This rare and special novel celebrates love and life with engaging characters and stunning language, making it perfect for fans of Jandy Nelson, Nina LaCour, and David Levithan.


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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Dear Little JO,*

I guess when you read this letter you’ll be sitting right here looking at what I’m looking at. The front of Ms. Khang’s English classroom with the old-fashioned blackboard and the posters of famous book covers and the Thought of the Day and this new thing, this big wooden box painted in bright colors. I mean you don’t know me because I just drew your name randomly. And if you’re in tenth grade this will be your first course with Ms. Khang, which means you don’t know her as a teacher yet either. Pretty weird getting a letter from a total stranger I bet. Or how about getting a letter period, in this day and age.

Khang stands up there taking as much time as possible telling us what this box is for. She’s turning it around and around to show off her paint job, tilting it forward to show the two slots in the top, pointing out the separate combination lock for each lid. All that buildup. After a while we’re all expecting doves to fly out of it or something. And then poor Khang looks all disappointed when we’re disappointed that it turns out to be only a mailbox. Which is the whole problem with buildup. Well you’ll see it for yourself pretty soon I guess.

On the board it says Introduce Yourself. So my name is Adam Kurlansky and this is Twelfth Grade Applied English. One of the courses I flunked last year, which now I’m regretting because this assignment is not something I’m all that interested in. A letter every week for the entire semester. *JO stands for Jerkoff in case you were wondering. I’m sticking it here in the middle of the letter instead of at the top because Khang wants us to hold up the paper to show her before we put it in the envelope. To prove that we filled the minimum one page, since she’s not actually planning on reading our letters herself. If she asks me I guess I’ll just say JO is short for your name, Jonathan.

Don’t take it the wrong way. I figure it’s fair game to call you a little jerkoff even though I don’t know you personally because I was one too, as a sophomore. Only most likely not as little. I was already pretty close to my full height by then: six foot three.

I mean I see you all in the halls with your faces turning red whenever I catch you staring at me. You’re like these arcade gophers popping in and out of holes. People know who I am because of being a bunch of credits behind and not graduating and having to come crawling back for the so-called victory lap. Or not because of that. More likely because of football I guess. Because they decided to let me keep playing football.


Adam Kurlansky

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Dear Kurl,

May I call you Kurl? From what I’ve overheard in the halls and absorbed from the general atmosphere of this school, the nickname “Kurl” is used nearly universally in addressing or referring to you, so I assume you’re content enough with it. You don’t know me, of course, but I do know a bit about you by reputation if nothing else. When my older sister, Shayna, started ninth grade, she tore the photos of the football and basketball teams out of the Lincoln Herald and put them up in her room. Then she set out to memorize all the players’ names, not because she was a particular fan of those sports but because she surmised—correctly, I believe—that members of the football and basketball teams would be the key tastemakers in the Abraham Lincoln High School social scene, and back then she was still interested in keeping abreast of that scene. This was prior to Shayna becoming best friends with Bronwyn Otulah-Tierney and entering her Age of Skepticism, as our father, Lyle, calls it.

We haven’t discussed it in so many words at home, but I would say that my sister has moved further in the last year or so, to what I’d call an Age of Nihilism. Sleeping all day, staying out late, greasy hair, plummeting grades, glowering. I wonder if this state of existence rings a bell for you, Kurl, if you’re repeating courses this year? Did you have an Age of Nihilism? What comes after it?

Anyhow. I have a very clear memory of these team pictures. I was twelve years old and would assist Shayna by quizzing her on the players’ names, so I would probably still be able to greet many of those boys by name if I met them in the hall—but of course most of them have graduated by now. You were one of the younger players at the time; I suppose you would have been a sophomore, one of the little jerkoffs you mention in your letter.

I remember your picture in particular because you were one of only two boys who played on both the football and basketball teams. Adam Kurlansky, the photo’s caption read, but Shayna referred to you as Kurl. Hearing my sister say it—there was a kind of reverence in her voice, or at least a deep respect—I immediately sensed the power that a good nickname conferred upon its bearer. I’ve been “Jojo” to Shayna and Lyle on and off since I was a baby, but that was obviously not going to suffice in the context of high school.

I began testing out possible new nicknames for myself. I asked my father to call me “Kirk” from that day forward. Lyle was really generous about it, but after attempting it for a day or two he said it was too strange for him because Hopkirk is his last name, too. When Shayna caught wind of my nickname quest, she informed me that it doesn’t work that way, that one never, ever gives oneself a nickname, that one has to simply be admired and beloved enough for a nickname to magically and spontaneously be granted by one’s peers. And even back then—even in seventh grade—I knew I would never be cool enough to warrant a nickname. So Jonathan it is, or JO, I suppose. (A confession: I saw your Dear Little JO and, for approximately five seconds before noticing your asterisk and dropping my eyes to the middle of the letter, I did imagine it might be a pet name for Jonathan. Nonsensical, of course. Why would you give a nickname to someone you have never even met?)

I just asked Ms. Khang if I could finish this letter at home and deposit it in her mailbox first thing tomorrow morning. She said that although I’m always welcome to write additional and/or supplementary letters in my spare time, I have to turn this one in now to avoid the “perils of lost or reconsidered correspondence,” as she put it. She smiled in a secretive way when she said it, so I suspect she was quoting from one of her favorite eighteenth-century novels. My apologies for the abrupt ending, Kurl.

From Ms. Khang’s list of Acceptable Sign-offs on the blackboard I will choose the one that resonates most closely with my personal philosophy—something I will have to explain in a future letter.

Yours truly,

Jonathan “Kirk” Hopkirk (I know, I just can’t quite pull it off, can I?)

Wednesday, September 2

Dear Little JO,

I had to laugh when I read your letter. Is this the way you actually talk? Or is it a special style you use for writing? A style of long sentences and lots of commas.

I guess I didn’t really answer any of the About Me questions on the board last time. I should warn you up front about myself. I mean I wrote enough last time but not really any of the right things. And then just now after I read your letter, for about ten minutes I was just sitting here. The rain coming down the window reminded me of this one week last month in summer training. I’m going to guess that you do not play football. I mean judging from your letter, all that stuff about nicknames and personal philosophy, whatever that is. I probably would have heard of your name at least if you did play football. I know most of the junior team by name.

So they do this summer training for the senior team, like a boot camp. And this one week it wouldn’t quit raining. I remember my shoulder pads got this sad basement smell to them, and my cleats croaked. I mean they literally croaked like frogs every step I took. And no matter what we tried, every play Coach Samuels called ended up in a pile of mud-coated slippery bodies.

Last year in this class the assignment was that we were supposed to keep a journal. Except Khang called it a Book of Days, like medieval virgins kept under their pillows or something. And I knew how much of our grade it was worth et cetera. But whenever she gave us time to write I would sit here remembering stuff like this rainy football week. I’d end up staring out the window the whole class and somehow the entire school year passed like that. I am not planning on letting that happen again but I guess I’m saying don’t get your hopes up.


Adam Kurlansky

Tuesday, September 8

Dear Kurl,

Ms. Khang suggested that we write on the theme of heroism today, and specifically “whether you would identify someone in your life as a hero, and why.”

I understand the large hearts of heroes, Walt Whitman writes, The courage of present times and all times. Do you know the poet Walt Whitman, Kurl? Perhaps not: I don’t think Whitman is anywhere on the curriculum at Lincoln High.

Anyhow, when I think of heroism as large-heartedness, I can’t help but think of Lyle Hopkirk. It’s not that any father wouldn’t have stepped up to the role of single parent after the sudden death of his spouse. My mother, Raphael, was riding her bicycle and got hit by a taxi when I was only five. Lyle turned down a possible record deal in LA and took a full-time teaching position at the music school so that Shayna and I wouldn’t have to face any more upheaval.

But the truly heroic part, in my opinion, is that he never became moody or resentful about it, or took on any tortured-artist airs. He underwent a period of grief, of course, but I only know this because there are no photographs of Raphael in our house, and when I once asked him why, he confessed that “back when they were too hard to look at,” he had gotten rid of them—a rash action which he now regrets. My father has an upbeat personality by nature, and he simply made sure to let that natural buoyancy be the reigning principle for our family life. I think Lyle gets everything he needs from music, the way I get it from poetry. You should see him the day after his bluegrass band, the Decent Fellows, plays its regular gig at Rosa’s Room. He practically floats through the house, loose and relaxed and dreamy.

My father’s personal motto is Be real and be true. Since Lyle is my hero, I’ve been trying to make his motto my own. And this involves being forthright about myself, in particular. So prepare yourself for full disclosure on the subject of Jonathan Hopkirk. You’d never pick me out of a crowd, Kurl. I am short for my age and fine-boned. I have sandy brown hair that sticks out from my head in whichever direction is least fashionable no matter how much Hard Hold Paste I may attempt to work through it in the morning.

My passions are live music, especially folk and bluegrass, and poetry, as I’ve already mentioned—especially the work of Walt Whitman. Have you ever come across Walt’s seminal poem “Song of Myself”? I would be tempted to claim that poem as my personal manifesto, but it is altogether too complicated, too magnificent, for such a claim. Like Walt, I am an ardent believer in

… going in for my chances, spending for vast returns,

Adorning myself to bestow myself on the first that will take me,

Not asking the sky to come down to my good will,

Scattering it freely forever.

A beautiful sentiment, isn’t it, Kurl? Risky and beautiful. And, in the spirit of being real and true, I would like to divulge something Walt never could admit to directly, in his day, for fear of recriminations: I’m gay. My sexuality has never been something I’ve tried to hide.

Does being “out” make for a thornier social life? Quite possibly. The unfortunate reality of homophobia is already announcing itself to me two weeks into the new school year. There are certain members of my cohort—certain little JOs, Kurl, in your parlance—whom I hoped might have matured over the summer and thereby lost interest in me and whatever vague and intangible threat I seem to represent to them. Instead the interest seems keener than ever. But hiding and lying takes considerable energy, too.

Lyle, in any case, is strongly queer-positive and always wholly supportive of me. It’s another aspect of his heroism, I suppose.

The bell has just rung, Kurl, and my hand is cramped from writing nonstop for fifty minutes straight.

Yours truly,

Jonathan Hopkirk

PS: I’m enclosing Part 14 of “Song of Myself” in case the quotation above didn’t make any sense on its own. Sorry about the woolen fuzz along the creases. I’ve been carrying it in my trousers pocket for the back-to-school transition, but I’ve more or less memorized this section of the poem at this point, so I’m happy to pass it on.

Thursday, September 10

Dear Little JO,

I’d never pick you out of a crowd? I mean are you sure?

So the day after Khang hands around that second batch of sophomore letters to us I’m walking down the hall as usual. There’s a cluster of the usual little JOs. All laughing, especially the girls, and watching a couple of guys kick a book back and forth to each other across the floor. Pages flying everywhere. And there’s this one particular little JO even smaller than the others running back and forth after the book, going, Very funny, okay, joke’s over, come on guys, give it back. This high sort of squeaky voice.

This little JO is dressed up in some kind of costume, it looks like. A white shirt with a high collar buttoned all the way up, and suspenders crossed at the back. I mean he looks like a character in a historical novel. A chimney sweep or something. I’m thinking maybe he’s in the school play, auditioning maybe, only I don’t think they do auditions until after Christmas.

So this small guy keeps reaching down for the book one second before it’s kicked away. At one point his hand gets nailed pretty hard by one of the little JOs’ shoes but he doesn’t even pause, just shakes out his fingers and sort of scrambles across the hall to try to intercept the book again. This continues—and I have to say it’s pretty painful to watch—until Mr. Carlsen, the Business and Tech teacher, steps into the circle and picks up the book, takes a quick look at the spine and goes, Major British Poets. Young people, I fear for your generation, I really do.

Of course all the little JOs are laughing their asses off. Except for that littlest one. His face is all flushed and he’s out of breath. He goes up to Mr. Carlsen and sort of scrapes his hair off his forehead and sticks his fists on his hips. Like after everything that’s been happening, now he’s finally found the one thing worth getting upset about. He goes, Actually, sir, I would argue that poetry has real relevance to our generation if you can learn to take the poet on his own terms.

I mean it’s not exactly rocket science to figure out which one of the little JOs in this scenario is Jonathan Hopkirk.

And I have to say your big confession about being gay is also not as much of a shocker as you probably thought. I figured that one out right around the line May I call you Kurl? Not to mention My passions are live music and poetry. I hate to break it to you but normal high school students don’t have passions. They don’t have mottoes and personal philosophies. They don’t have manifestos written by historical gay poets.

You getting harassed like that in the hall? It’s probably not only about you being gay. From where I sit I would say you’re getting shoved around not for being queer as in homosexual but for being queer as in weird. I mean weird kids do have this aura to them. It’s like a smell almost. They’re stuck somewhere in their heads, in some kind of a bubble. People can’t really help themselves: They see a bubble, they want to pop it.


Adam Kurlansky

Tuesday, September 15

Dear Kurl,

Drama! Scandal! Intrigue! Mystery! Guess whom I read about in the Lincoln Herald this morning? Front-page news:

Kurl Walks! Wolvies Up 16 at ¾ Home Opener, Fullback Adam Kurlansky Quits Team, Costs Game

I suppose it testifies to my near-total social isolation and my alienation from the culture of the school that I didn’t hear about this event until reading it in the Herald. I’m certain it officially makes me the last person at Lincoln to receive the news. The fact that my sister’s friend Bronwyn wrote the story adds irony to my ignorance, since she and Shayna undoubtedly spent half of last night talking about it and I still didn’t catch on. I haven’t yet mentioned to them that Adam Kurlansky is my assigned pen pal, I suppose because at some level we seem an unlikely match.

Permit me to quote from the news story:

“Coach Samuels told the Herald he is focused on keeping things positive, helping the Wolverines pull together to fill the gap left by Kurlansky. ‘I’m concerned, sure,’ he admitted. ‘But Kurl is a good kid, a fighter, a real lion. I’m sure he’ll turn it around in time to contribute this season.’ Kurlansky himself declined to comment on Friday night’s walkout. When we asked him whether we can expect him back on the field this year, his reply was simply, ‘I doubt it.’”

I hope you won’t hold it against Bron for writing the piece. Perhaps, like me, you feel it edges into the sphere of celebrity gossip. Bronwyn Otulah-Tierney can be, at times, overzealous. She is very focused on building her portfolio for her applications to the best journalism schools in the country.

I reread your most recent letter last night, Kurl, and I’d like to clarify one point: I never meant to imply that I get bullied only because of my sexual orientation, or even that it’s in any way mysterious to me why I get singled out. Above all it was not my intention to complain about being mistreated. Maybe I am queer as in weird, as you theorize so eloquently. But my weirdness is merely a natural by-product of having my sights set on something beyond high school, namely poetry.

Kurl, can you truly blame me for wanting to focus on something other than my immediate surroundings? Be honest: If you could, wouldn’t you want to immerse yourself in something bigger than the squalid little torments of adolescence? Wouldn’t you want to transcend the mind-numbing boredom of, say, tenth-grade Business and Technology class? Mr. Carlsen stands up there in front of us in his Gap cords, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet and rhapsodizing about Excel budgets and search engine optimization, and the only reason I can refrain from running out and lighting myself on fire is that my mind is elsewhere. Call it an aura; call it a bubble. I understand how it incites others to malice and torment. It drives even Shayna and Lyle crazy when they talk to me and I don’t seem to hear their voices.

I was rereading Walt Whitman’s book Leaves of Grass last night, and I copied out these stanzas for you (enclosed). They capture the spirit of heroism I was trying to describe. Whitman is talking here about lending his spirit to humanity in general, but You shall not go down! Hang your whole weight upon me sums up my father’s steady, positive strength and his devotion to me and Shayna.

Yours truly,

Jonathan Hopkirk

Thursday, September 17

Dear Little JO,

I guess I can tell you about heroes. Sacrifice et cetera. My dad died falling off a roof when I was ten. My uncle Viktor held up the business alone for a few years but it nearly went bankrupt. So my brother Sylvan quit his job and went to work for him full-time. He was twenty or twenty-one by then and halfway through his electrician’s training, but he just dropped everything. You should see his shitty apartment. I mean I’m pretty sure all his savings went into Kurlansky Roofing and they’re not exactly making a killing. He has never said a word about any of this to me.

The thing about heroes is they make you look at yourself. Your brother is a hero, people will say to me. Meaning my middle brother Mark actually, not Sylvan. Meaning Afghanistan. They’ll say it to me because they want to remind me. Also because according to Sylvan Mark always shrugs them off when they say stuff like that to him. No such thing as the world becoming a better place, he’ll tell them.

Mark’s earned it for sure. He was deployed just after his eighteenth birthday. I mean he was a few months younger than I am now. Even Uncle Vik shuts right up when Mark’s around.

I don’t know about those poems you keep sending me. That last one especially. I dilate you with tremendous breath or whatever? I don’t know if Walt Whitman is really who you want to model yourself after. I have to say he comes across as sort of a douche. I could do without all the poems.

The thing about heroes is that they ask without asking: What about you? What are you waiting for?

I would have to tell them I’m actually waiting for nothing.


Adam Kurlansky

Monday, September 21

Dear Kurl,

Will you permit me a random observation on the group of little JOs who’ve taken to habitually hassling me (I call them, collectively, the butcherboys)? It’s difficult for me to focus on any other letter-writing topic when, just before class, my satchel was co-opted by the butcherboys and flung onto the roof of the school.

You may or may not have noticed a certain little JO named Christopher Dowell in the group. Now, there’s a young man who, you can be sure, will never earn himself a cool nickname. In my experience, it’s always the one in the group whose own position is most precarious, the one who walks the thin, thin line between insider and outcast—you can count on it, it’ll be him who hits the hardest, who laughs the loudest. The other butcherboys don’t particularly care whether I live or die, but this one, this Dowell—he’s the one who really hates me. Because Dowell knows, and he knows I know, that he’s a lot closer to being like me than his so-called friends are.

I was sorry to read about your father passing away. I hadn’t realized we’d both lost a parent; in an oblique, circumstantial way, this gives us something in common.

You sounded somewhat depressed in your last letter. I hope you’re not regretting your decision to stop playing football? I am going to assume, Kurl, that if you want to share with me your reasons for quitting the football team in such a dramatic and precipitous manner, you will. I’m curious, of course. But as I sat there earlier today in Math, rereading Bron’s Herald story under my desk, I suddenly thought about what it must be like for you, at school and maybe at home, too, being continually judged for your actions and asked to explain yourself to everyone.

Please don’t feel any obligation to explain anything to me. My point is quite the opposite: I want to invite you to feel free to use the space of these letters to talk about things that actually interest you, to muse about the topics that dominate your thoughts when you’re alone. We might as well take advantage of the fact that we don’t owe each other anything, that no one else is ever going to read what we’re writing, that it’s just me and you and whatever we feel like saying.

Let me be the first to enact this advice. Here is what I’m currently thinking: If you’ve concluded that Walt Whitman is, in your words, a douche, then you’ve failed to properly appreciate the extent to which he threw himself, body and soul, into the workaday life of nineteenth-century New York City. I’m enclosing a few photocopied pages of “Song of Myself.” Have a look at the sheer variety of the types of people and activities he describes. The fishing boats, the funeral, the washerwomen, the beehives, the church choir—all on one page of the poem. Maybe you can give me your interpretation of it, and then in my next letter I’ll share with you what I think it means. We’ll both be wrong and right.

Poetry’s like that, Kurl: slippery and coy. It means different things to different readers. You shouldn’t feel embarrassed if it makes you nervous. You’re not alone in that reaction. Look at Mr. Carlsen. He’d rather see Major British Poets being kicked down the hallway than read, let alone discussed, studied, cherished.

Yours truly,

Jonathan Hopkirk

Wednesday, September 23

Dear Little JO,

This is a bonus letter for you since we’re actually supposed to be researching our topic for a PSA slide show in Khang’s class. Public service announcement. The captivating sort of stuff you get to do in Twelfth Grade Applied English.

In case you’re dying of curiosity though, my PSA is on Explosive Emergency Situations. I’ve been reading quite a lot about the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and ISIL in Afghanistan since my brother Mark came back. He doesn’t talk about it but there’s a lot online. Since the US withdrawal, all three of these groups are getting involved in infighting and jostling for power. During Mark’s deployment, though, I think it was mostly the Taliban.


  • Praise for We Contain Multitudes:


    *"A love story, a therapy session, a reason to read Whitman-the sweetness of unexpected amour is here, as is the saline of sadness...Your reason to root for love-and the power of the pen."

    Kirkus, starred review

  • *"This is an absolutely extraordinary work of fiction that proves the epistolary novel is an art form. Kurl and Jo are characters to die for, emotionally compelling and empathetic. Their quotidian lives are riveting and their story unforgettable...not to be missed."—Booklist, starred review

  • "...as a medium for reporting day-to-day occurrences and conveying intimate feelings and classic themes-love, lust, and betrayal, among others-the letters shine."—Publishers Weekly

  • "...her [Hentra's] skill lies in painstakingly depicting each boy's slow move toward vulnerability until a smoldering, secret romance begins. This exploration of self and sexuality is sure to be quickly embraced by fans of Love, Simon, They Both Die in the End and The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue"
    Shelf Awareness

  • "We Contain Multitudes is a heartbreaker in many ways, but it's ultimately a beautiful story about how love (and poetry) are sometimes enough to carry the day."—Bookpage

  • "...an epic, sweeping romance..."—Horn Book

  • "We Contain Multitudes is an emotional journey, both heartbreaking and healing. A true love letter to the way family, friendships, and first loves slowly peel away our carefully constructed walls to the layers beneath. Henstra's words are a universe I never want to escape."

    Julian Winters, author of Running with Lions

  • "The title of this book is incredibly fitting. Jonathan and Kurl are two complex and fascinating characters, and they instantly drew me into the world created by their letters and their love. It's an astonishing romance and character study that also happens to be full of gorgeous writing."—Robin Talley, author of Lies We Tell Ourselves and Pulp

On Sale
May 12, 2020
Page Count
384 pages

Sarah Henstra

About the Author

Sarah Henstra is a professor of English at Ryerson University. Sarah is the author of the YA novel Mad Miss Mimic and the adult novel The Red Word. Sarah lives in Ontario, Canada.

Learn more about this author