“Grief stole her spark. It took an adventure to find it again.” This quote, printed on the front cover, sums up the essence of Caroline and Mordecai the Gand (Seven Guns Press), a story for middle schoolers by Jeff Gunhus. Gunhus, a USA Today bestselling author of thriller and horror novels for adults as well as a series of middle-grade/YA books, admits that his latest release is “quite a departure.”
Caroline and Mordecai the Gand is a fantasy novel concerning death and grief. Through heartfelt and imaginative storytelling, it emphasizes the intrinsic value of deep relationships and connection and why we must not allow grief and death to separate us from the memories of our loved ones. The story is an offshoot of a letter from Gunhus to his children after being diagnosed with stage III cancer.
“I wrote it not long after my diagnosis, intending it only to be for my kids if things did not go well,” he says. “This story was my way of telling them what I wanted to say but in a way that gave me enough space to get through it.” Gunhus found the writing of the book cathartic and did, eventually, share it with friends. Their reactions convinced him that the book should be released to the public. “I reached my five-year anniversary of being cancer-free,” he said. “While I don’t want to tempt the gods, it feels emotionally like a good enough milestone to breathe just a bit easier.”
MAGICAL WINDOW, MYSTERIOUS LAND
The book begins with a 13-year-old girl, Caroline, whose beloved father has died in a tragic car accident. Guilt infects the grief because she believes it was her fault that her father died. Both she and her mother are devastated and withdraw from both the world and each other.
After taking a walk to a nearby pond, Caroline notices a magic window opening in the water. With much trepidation, she slips through the window and enters a mysterious land where she meets her guide, a kind wanderer named Mordecai the Gand. He promises that he can lead her back home but not without encountering obstacles, including unpredictable and hostile strangers, a witch, and a dragon.
Overcoming these challenges requires that Caroline dig deep within herself to find the courage and heart to prevail. She discovers that her empathy is her strength and that she can reconnect with her world by simply giving of herself to others. Grief is no longer a dreaded and oppressive enemy; it transforms into an adventure in its own right, leading Caroline back to where she needs to be.
GIVE OF YOURSELF
Caroline is not the only one who benefits from the journey. It becomes clear that her guide is not entirely carefree; Mordecai bears a secret burden of his own. She soon finds out how much they share in common. In taking the risk to involve herself in Mordecai’s story, Caroline can set him free, thus reinforcing her own connection with others.
I found the characters to be very relatable. Caroline is not a petulant or self-absorbed child but someone who learns how to give of herself despite having lost so much. The encounter she has with the witch is especially poignant and powerful and it becomes a pivotal point of the story. Mordecai proved elusive throughout, making me wonder just what he was hiding. By the time he divulged his secret, I had figured it out, but it did not take away from the impact of the revelation.
Many books slow in the middle; this story did the opposite. I found myself reading faster and faster to get to the end. When I finished it, I burst into tears. Apparently it was cathartic for me as well.
RAW, AUTHENTIC AND BEAUTIFUL
Caroline and Mordecai the Gand is raw, authentic, and beautiful. In showing both sides of grief — the immense darkness and the illuminating light — Gunhus reveals grief’s transformative power. He believes that middle schoolers will understand the message. “Middle schoolers are a pretty smart group, and unfortunately, often much more worldly than kids their age were only a decade ago,” says Gunhus. “If they haven’t faced [death and grief] themselves, they’ve certainly faced the fear of losing someone.”
He continues, “The middle schoolers who were early readers of the book shared with me that while the story was sad, it left them feeling hopeful and uplifted. That was the goal!”
Caroline and Mordecai the Gand thoroughly accomplishes what the author set out to do. I highly recommended it.
Caroline and Mordecai the Gand is available for purchase.