Warning: Contains Plot Spoilers!
Grand & Humble
By Brent Hartinger
Harlan and Manny are both seventeen years old, but they couldn’t be more different. Harlan is an athlete with a beautiful girlfriend, the son of a powerful U.S. Senator, and possibly the most popular kid in his high school. Meanwhile, Manny is a quirky theater geek, the son of a struggling single father, and one of the school’s least popular kids. And yet, Harlan and Manny both share the same sense of foreboding, a feeling that something is not right in each of their lives.
They have something else in common as well, even if they don’t know it. Fourteen years ago, when they were both three years old, a tragedy occurred — an accident that would link the two boys together forever, even as it ultimately drove them apart. It’s an event that both of them barely remember, but it still haunts them in the form of Harlan’s premonitions and Manny’s nightmares. Somehow both boys know that nothing will ever be right until they can each unravel the secret of the terrifying instant that lies at the center of both their lives.
Confused by the ending? Here’s the answer:
Harlan and Manny are the same person, but in different timelines. In Manny’s timeline, his birth-parents were killed at the corner of Grand & Humble. In Harlan’s timeline, his parents avoided the accident and survived. Harlan is who Manny might have been, and vice-versa.
Major Themes and Ideas
(1) People are the sum total of their experiences: nothing more, nothing less.
(2) The course of our lives is not set. One small change in direction can subsequently make a huge difference.
(3) It is important to know who we are. Self-knowledge and understanding can lead to contentment.
(4) Change is possible through inner strength.
(1) Grand & Humble is a book about mirror images: in the two storylines, many things are exactly reversed. In what ways are Harlan and Manny opposites? In what ways does each become more like the other by the end of the book?
(2) In many ways, Ricky and Elsa, and Harlan’s mother and Manny’s father are mirror opposites too. How are they different from each other? How are they the same?
(3) Are Harlan and Manny the same person? If not, why? Are we more than our physical being? Are we more than our individual experiences? What exactly is a “person”?
(4) Do you believe in alternate timelines? If they do exist, would you want to know? If you visited one, what would you ask yourself? Are there certain things about yourself that would be the same in virtually all timelines? What things exactly?
(5) A certain springtime smell affects both Harlan and Manny, causing premonitions in one and nightmares in the other. Have smells ever inspired memories or feelings in you? In the book, Harlan is worried about his future, while Manny is investigating his past. How do Harlan’s premonitions and Manny’s nightmares relate to the event(s) that took place at the corner of Grand & Humble? What exactly is each character searching for?
(6) The author frequently implies that Harlan and Manny’s timelines will intersect, but they never actually do (because they can’t). What do you think about this? Ricky and Elsa exist in both Harlan and Manny’s timelines, but in the end, they turn out to be slightly different characters. Did the author play fair?
(7) What do you think is the meaning of the book’s title? What role does the metaphor of the intersection play in the book?
(8) The book’s premise is that one small change early in life can subsequently turn someone into a completely different person. Do you agree with this, or is who we are more innate than that? What exactly is destiny?
(9) Do you believe in a force that controls or guides our lives? What is that force and how does it work? What do you think of Gwen’s idea that “destiny” is somehow our subconscious minds trying to find patterns and work things out?
(10) Were you surprised by the ending? Was it satisfying? Does it make you sad that only Harlan or Manny can exist at any one time, not both?
Suggested Class Projects
(1) Have students imagine an alternate timeline in which a character exists who is the exact opposite of who they are. Have them write a short story about this character.
(2) Using a compass, show how a small change in a compass’ bearing can quickly change your course, and how the change grows greater farther from the starting point. From this, discuss how a change at one point in a life can make big changes further down the line. Example: a “good paying” job right out of high school might mean more money immediately, but it could also change the financial trajectory of a person’s life later on.
(3) Bring mirrors or digital technology to class. Have students examine their own images. Also have them compare the two halves of their faces, either by holding mirrors up to their faces, or rearranging the computer images. Human faces are not, in fact, symmetrical. Use this exercise to illustrate the idea of mirror images present in the book, and to point out that, as in Grand & Humble, people are more than their individual elements.
(4) Have students make a list of their traits, then write a list with the opposites of those traits. Have them pick one of those “opposite” traits, then role-play that trait for five minutes. Have students write or talk about the experience. What did they like about their new role? What did they not like? Did they still feel like the same person?