“Challenger Deep” by Neal Shustman


Challenger Deep is a young adult novel by Neal Shusterman that follows 15-year-old Caden Bosch.  He used to like to go to school, hang out with his sister, and create video games.  We see the world through Caden’s eyes, sometimes with brilliant imagery.  He describes his parents as “a single creature with four weeping eyes” and feels so distant that it’s as if he has cotton in his ears. We come to realize that Caden is toggling between two worlds – one that is real, and one that is real only in his mind. His parents become aware and alarmed when, over several months, Caden gradually loses his hold on reality, unable to focus on anything, skipping ball practice to walk, announcing that a kid at school wants to kill him, and claiming that he is being visited by an erratic, one-eyed pirate Captain. In the pirate world, the Captain seeks to explore Challenger Deep, the nadir of the Marianas Trench, at 6.8 miles is the deepest area in the world.

Caden agrees to go on this expedition, which is a metaphor for his illness. Caden exists both in his metaphorical pirate world, and the real world of family and school; sometimes even in a blend of both. At wits end, Caden’s parents commit him to Seaview Memorial Hospital for treatment. The scene where his parents turn and walk away listening to his protests is heartbreaking.  The pirate world expands and continues during his stay at the hospital.  The Captain tells Caden that there is no telling how deep the Trench, or Caden’s illness, may actually go. The Captain of the excursion is accompanied by a loud-mouthed parrot, a mental mirror for Dr. Poirot, Caden’s doctor at Seaview. All of the crewmembers whom Caden encounters onboard are mirror images of the patients he meets at Seaview. There is the navigator, Hal, who obsessively seeks to find patterns in maps and who serves as Caden’s roommate at the hospital; there is the beautiful but distant Callie who appears on ship as the wooden maiden; and there is Carlyle, the group therapist who appears on the ship as the deck hand.

Caden grows close to Callie who beautifully speaks to the struggle for clarity: “But if we endure it… I will find myself as I was before. We do, you know. Find ourselves. Although it’s a little harder each time… Then we squeeze ourselves back into the skin of who were before all this. We put the pieces back together and get on with things.”

The author develops a compassionate, haunting portrait of a schizophrenic teenager, thanks to input from his son Brendan, who had sailed the dark, unpredictable waters of mental illness.   The book includes Brendan’s drawings that show the inner turmoil and a means to communicate what words cannot.

Although there is no easy path, the book does offer hope, that through treatment and self-acceptance, mental illness can be managed.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, August 1.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m.Tuesday, August 2 for a discussion of Challenger Deep at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.