“Undiscovered Country” by Lin Enger

Lin Enger’s Undiscovered Country, which I received as a reader’s copy from the publisher, transposes Shakespeare’s Hamlet to modern-day Northern Minnesota, an icy analog for Denmark. The narrator, Jesse’s, father died in a supposed suicide, and after he sees what may be a ghost, he wonders what role his uncle and his mother might have played in the father’s death. This update follows Hamlet closely, but not exactly, and it’s in the departures and the nuances that this book shines. Here, Jesse and his 8-year-old brother Magnus, talk about the death of their father:

Did he do it, Jess?

What do you mean, I asked, knowing full well.

I mean, did he do it?

Of course not. It was an accident, like Mom said.

Mom never said that. Mom never said anything.

Well, that’s what it was.

How do you know? Did you see it happen? No.

Then you don’t know.

I know Dad, I said.

Are you sure?

I took his shoulders in my hands, looked as deeply into his eyes as he’d let me, and saw there, in large part, what my role in life was going to be for the next decade or so, until he grew up. I saw it with clarity–and I was not mistaken.

Yes, I said, I’m sure. I’m sure.

My brother stepped forward into my arms then, and his body felt breakable and small. I hung on to him for all I was worth.

Undiscovered Country is in the tradition of young-adult novels, told simply in first person by a teenager having difficulty with the adults in his life. This would work well as a companion novel for high schoolers reading Shakespeare’s play. There are opportunities to compare and contrast, discuss whether the story is universal, and how well it translates to a different time and place.

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