There’s something magical about observing the beauty of nature from the vantage point of a large redwood tree high above a California forest, looking down at the tranquility and the possibilities the world has to offer. 

There’s something more poignant when the person on that perch is the homeless 17-year-old Jesse Glen, who lives in the forest and camps with his younger sister and drug-addicted mother and is struggling  —  longing — for the kind of life where basic needs are abundant and he doesn’t have to hide his reality from friends and colleagues.

Adolescence and growing up is hard enough for kids given the standard necessities and opportunities, but Jesse’s plight is overlaid with angst, deficiency, secrecy, and isolation in Kathy Wollenberg’s touching coming-of-age debut novel Far Less (Humboldt State University Press).

SECRETS UNRAVELLING

Somehow Jesse, for the most part, manages to hide his situation from those around him – cleaning up in public places, sneaking in laundry and chores, attending school and scrapping for food, all the while tending lovingly to his sister and grudgingly to his mother. This gets tricky when he acquires a love interest, and then another, and manipulates as best he can to hold onto his self-esteem and cover up his true existence.

While readers might expect a desolate persona from the protagonist, Wollenberg paints Jesse as enterprising, responsible and hopeful. He doesn’t apologize for his plight, resents pity, and focuses every moment on addressing what is needed with practical decisions. If anything, readers will applaud his resilience.

A primary theme in the book is Jesse’s discovery of an unusual yellow salamander in the trees, which fascinates him as he tries to identify it. Any research he pursues turns up empty. Yet, he shows a keen interest in exploration and discovery, which gives him a sense of joy in his bleak world and promises of opportunities in the future.

“He needed to get away from his mother and go to a place that made sense. Both the forest and the library provided him with a sense of order that made him feel safe.”

Jessie wants to share this feeling with his sister: “He wished he could transport Lizzie into the protected notch. He wanted her to know the feeling that nothing could go wrong, and that even though everything was changing and uncertain down on the ground, the tree would be there, growing up through the misty fog towards the sun.”

THE WORLD REOPENS FOR ONE YOUNG MAN

As the story progresses, Jesse’s world eventually becomes known to some, in particular Marie, a girl who works at a shelter and sees Jesse frequently – and for what he is. She says, “I do like giving people food but, I don’t know, I think of you as yourself, as Jesse. And that you are a teenager like me only you have, you know, far less stuff.”

Karen Wollenberg has written a book for teens and young adults that will touch many nerves.  It will also make readers stop and be grateful for what they shouldn’t take for granted, and appreciate how someone with the types of issues many of them hopefully will never confront can rise in the face of adversity and behave seemingly beyond his age.

The story, says Wollenberg, was inspired by circumstances she observed when accompanying her own daughter to volunteer helping the homeless in many capacities. And, of course, it is about family. “How could I question magic when the two most fantastic and mythical characters I know are my very own children? Watching them climb trees, make campfires, love dogs, climb summit mountains barefoot, help people and generally shine love wherever they go is all the inspiration anyone could ask for.”

Be inspired by Far Less and the story of Jesse Glen.

Buy this book!

Kathy Wollenberg has a Bachelor’s degree in Geology from Humboldt State University. Her background mapping for the Forest Service and running geology field camps and labs for HSU has given her an appreciation for detail and accuracy as well as an eye for description of landscape and the setting of a story. She has been published in, and was an editor for, Rubber Boa Reader, an annual Sierra Nevada newsletter. She is also the recipient of a first-place prize from the College of the Redwoods annual Poets and Writers poetry contest. She has also published an article about homelessness in the Tri City Weekly. She lives in Northern California. Far Less is her debut novel.