As he meticulously autographed 100 copies of his new memoir, Jim Henry, 98, wore a grin his grandnephew will never forget. "Ever seen a 4-year-old open presents on Christmas?" says Robert Henry, who attended the signing at Henry's Mystic, Conn., assisted-living home last November.
Sounds like a good way to get hand cramps, but as Jim Henry will tell you, he likes the practice. Just two years ago, the retired lobsterman made good on a lifelong goal: learning to read and write. He soon found he had a lot to say, and with help from a tutor, self-published In a Fisherman's Language last fall. The response in his tiny hometown has been electric. At Mystic's Bank Square Books, "in one month, he outsold Steve Jobs's book," marvels granddaughter Alicia Smith. Pulled out of school in third grade by his Portuguese immigrant father, Henry spent the rest of his youth helping his family make ends meet. As an adult, he made his way by faking it. "He'd pretend to read the newspaper," says his granddaughter Marlisa McLaughlin. In restaurants he'd listen to friends order and pick the same meals. "I pulled a lot of rabbits out of the hat," he chuckles. Inside, though, he felt "so ashamed," he remembers. "Sometimes I cried."
Told by McLaughlin about the memoir of a slave who beat illiteracy late in life, Henry decided that he could too. He started with the basics: his name and the ABCs. As he improved, with his tutor Mark Hogan, a retired English teacher, he set down episodes from his life-his youth in the Azores islands, his adventures on the sea-in longhand. "He said, 'This should be a book,'" recalls Hogan. The slim volume has sold more than 2,000 copies online (fishermanslanguage.com) and in bookstores, and Henry's fielding offers from agents. "They're making me a star!" he says. But the best part is finally being able to lose himself in the tales of others. "The Old Man and the Sea," he says, eyes twinkling. "Now that was quite a story."