June 01, 2017

Undiscovered Country

Written by Jennifer Gold
Second Story Press
320 pp.
Ages 13+
April 2017
I feel the familiar wave of sadness overtake me, trapping me underwater, stealing my breath.  Here in the jungle, it is easier to forget my grief.  Sometimes, it feels like something I forgot to pack, something there wasn't room for in my suitcase, and I feel I've won, I've escaped.  Then I remember, and it feels as fresh and raw as it did the night she closed her eyes for the last time. (pg. 125)
Seventeen-year-old Caitlin Marks' grief is as raw and unrelenting as the environs of Bolivia  to which she has thrown herself as a volunteer for nine months with Students Without Boundaries. SWB is Cat's way of running from Ohio and the recent death of her mother from cancer and a father too wrapped up in his own anguish to be a parent to his daughter. But what Cat discovers is that grief resides everywhere, in different forms, and can travel as easily as she does.

Told in alternating perspectives of Before and After, Undiscovered Country is Cat's story of the months leading to her mother's death from cancer and then her experiences as a volunteer in the village of Calantes, a community of poverty, violence and political unrest. As the reader learns of Cat's mom finding the lump in her breast and subsequent gruelling chemo, loss of hair, struggle for dignity and affliction with brain cancer which ultimately takes her life, Cat struggles with balancing being the support her mother needs and going on with her own life, taking her SAT, dealing with peers who see her in terms of her mother's illness, and planning for school at Stanford.  Each step is a struggle of emotions and logistics, helped only somewhat by her sessions with Dr. Shapiro who diagnoses her with Bipolar II.  Bolivia undoubtedly seems like a chance to really help while escaping the overwhelming torment of her sadness.
Sadness is like cancer that way, an unwelcome guest that takes the body or the mind hostage, stripping the joy... (pg. 138)
In Calantes, Cat meets bunkmates Margo who's there to appease her ultra-competitive parents and outdo her cousin who just got into law school; Taylor who'd flunked his first year of college after coming out as gay to his wealthy family; and Melody, a devout Christian, whose self-righteousness masks hidden traumas. And, though everything reminds her of her mother–make-up, Diet Coke, pretzels–Cat soldiers on, meeting the handsome local Rafael and others in the village where she ends up working in the rudimentary infirmary.  But, as she and fellow SWBers  struggle with their emotional baggage, the people of Calantes must deal with their social and political strife, troubles which Rafael is adamant can only be solved with dangerous actions.

The ambiguity that is Cat is normal after a tragedy.
Sometimes it feels as if there are two Cats–the one who longs for love and companionship, who's lonely and desperate for affection, and the other one, who's desperate and desolate and pushes people away, almost determined to stagnate in her grief. (pg. 187-188)
It's unfortunate that Dr. Shapiro and others in Undiscovered Country are so quick to label sadness and grief as mental illness in need of medication.  Cat's foray into a third-world country to volunteer and ease her impotence in helping her mother may not be ideal for all but it works for her, allowing her to discover herself and others in new circumstances.  Without realizing it, Cat's explorations abroad and within challenge her to accept her new normal.

Jennifer Gold, author of Soldier Doll (Second Story Press, 2014), again takes the issue of grief and connections and creates a story of loss, confusion and redemption, with honest characters dealing with realistic challenges but this time in a contemporary setting.  Her characters are dealing with grief, cancer, sexual abuse, foster care, sexuality, family expectations and the teen angst of relationships, peer and romantic.  It's a lot for them to deal with and a lot for Jennifer Gold to tackle.  Still Undiscovered Country, unlike most of us and most definitely Jennifer Gold's characters, never stumbles, instead exposing different paths of salvation to life's struggles, some safer than others, but all viable and very real.

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