________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIII Number 14 . . . . December 9, 2016


Undiscovered Country.

Jennifer Gold.
Toronto, ON: Second Story Press, April, 2017.
308 pp., trade pbk., $12.95.
ISBN 978-1-77260-031-5.

Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.

Review by Jocelyn Reekie.

***½ /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.




…"bienvenudo a Calantes." It's the soldier who was staring at me before. I hand him my papers without meeting his eye.

"Catalina Marks, from the USA," he drawls in thickly accented English. Latinizing my name. I don't correct him, just nod my head. My heart pounds and my stomach starts to churn.

"You come to help
los rebeldes," he says darkly. Los rebeldes. Rebels.

"Just helping to treat the sick. Children and the elderly." This was the reply I was taught to provide in orientation. It felt very different giving it in person, in real life.

The guard snorts and rattles off something in rapid-fire Spanish I can't quite catch. …

He leans toward me, leering, so close I can feel his breath on my ear. He smells like cigarettes and stale bread. "You don't speak Spanish?"

"I do!" I look up, panicked.
"Pero solo…solo hablo un pequito de EspaƱol." I only speak a little bit of Spanish. …

Sergeant Sleaze says nothing. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a cigarette. Fumbling for a lighter, he thrusts my papers back at me before lighting up and exhaling loudly. I try not to gag as he blows a toxic whorl of smoke right into my face. I notice Emerson is already through the door, looking worried.

I wonder if I blew the Spanish and accidentally insulted his mother or something.

"No you worry, Princessa." He steps aside, giving me that stomach-curdling grin again. "I let you go."


…I don't call or text my mom to find out. In my heart, I know that if it was good news, she would have sent me her own text, full of her trademark caps and exclamation marks and series of completely random emoji. Instead, it's been radio silence all day.

It's dark when I enter the house….

…I walk into the living room, where I find my father on the couch.

… he's just sitting there, in the dark, staring at the wall. …

"Where's Mom?" I interrupt. He's blathering on about support groups, which irritates me. My mother isn't the support group type. She'd probably rather have an extra biopsy than bare her soul to a roomful of strangers.

"She's sleeping," he said. "They gave her something to help her sleep. She was upset."

I take the stairs two at a time, and poke my head into my parents' bedroom. My mom is curled up on top of the duvet, still in her clothes.

On the dresser, I see a small bottle. Xanax, it says. Alprazolam. Quietly, I open the bottle and shake one into my palm.

Through the experiences of 17-year-old Caitlin (Cat) Marks, author Jennifer Gold touches the tips of a range of issues in Undiscovered Country.

      After a year of keeping her household together while she deals with her final year of high school, her mother's diagnosis of cancer, and her father's stunning inability to cope, Cat believes she will be able to escape the grief that is raging inside her by joining an aid organization called Students Without Borders and travelling to a poverty-stricken South American country. But when she arrives in Calentes, she is housed with three other young adults who have also come to escape a variety of troubled histories, and there is no such thing as peace on her horizon.

      The students do not bond together well, and, as they fight with each other and with their own inner demons, they discover they've landed in a country rife with political, economic and social upheaval and that Calentes is on the verge of war.

      In spite of the external threats, the students' own troubles do not subside, and culture shock, unbearable heat and humidity, and voracious insects are just minor inconveniences they are forced to endure as they also discover the usual tasks assigned to foreigners who come to such places to 'help' are woefully inadequate as analgesics or curative therapies for themselves or as effective measures to combat the various tragedies the citizens of Calentes face every day. The biggest challenge they face is where to go from there.

      In Cat, Gold has created a sympathetic character who is as complex as the issues she tackles.

      At home, Cat is a highly intelligent teenager and a loving daughter who is seemingly able to cope with incredible fortitude when her world is turned upside down during her mother's illness. But over time, she is unable to stop the rage that is buried from overwhelming her efforts to maintain control. She has a good friend, understanding teachers, and a psychiatrist who want to help, but no one can comprehend the depth of her pain. To complicate matters, when her pain erupts in questionable action, she is diagnosed with a condition called bipolar II, which, she later learns, has become a common label applied to people the medical establishment simply doesn't know how else to deal with, and she's prescribed debilitating drugs.

      In the jungle, Cat learns hers is but one hard story among many, but that doesn't make hers any easier to bear. Desperate for some kind of relief from the loneliness and anguish she's living with, she turns to Rafael, a local radical, and finds solace in physical love – only to find out later it was the wrong way to turn.

      Gold's strengths are in her ability to pull readers into Cat's worlds with beautiful, and devastating, details and to create a credible protagonist who takes readers to the core of the very real pain of losing someone one loves, not to mention the pain of Cat's dying mother. Her secondary characters also evoke a strong sense of sympathy for the injustices and hardships many people suffer, too many of which are unreported and unseen.

      To tell the stories of Cat's domestic upheaval and the upheaval in Calentes, the author employs a useful technique. The story is told in alternating chapters titled "Before" and "After". "Before" is the story of Cat at home during her mother's illness and immediately following her death; "After" is what takes place when Cat makes her escape. And inside both of these main plots, more subplots unfold.

      Cat's father cannot cope at all with his wife's illness or death, the medical profession treats her own expression of grief as a mental illness, her companions in the jungle all had difficult issues at home, and they, too, have been labelled as mentally ill. Then there is Rafael who has to deal with the realities of his country's turmoil and his parents' disappearance.

      The complexity of main plots and subplots gives readers plenty to think about and could inspire a variety of in-depth discussions in any classroom. However, to do the subplots justice, the book would have had to be four times as long as it is. Due to the constraints of the genre and the range of issues raised, the author has resorted to stereotypical characterizations in many cases, such as the way the people and troubles in Calentes are portrayed, Cat's father's reactions, and the way the problems suffered by her fellow workers in their pasts are presented.

      That said, overall, Undiscovered Country will engage and surprise young adult and adult readers alike. It is a thought-provoking and highly satisfying read.

Highly Recommended.

Jocelyn Reekie is a writer, editor and publisher in Campbell River, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
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