Challenger Deep Summary

Neal Shusterman

Challenger Deep

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Challenger Deep Summary

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New York Times bestselling writer Neal Shusterman’s young adult contemporary novel Challenger Deep (2015) follows a young boy struggling with schizophrenia who is torn between two different lives. Nominated for various awards, the book won the 2015 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Critics praise it for its sensitive portrayal of mental illness. An award-winning writer, Shusterman also directs short films. A psychology graduate, Shusterman often includes mental health issues in his work.

Caden Bosch is a fifteen-year-old gifted artist who wishes he could spend all his time painting and drawing. When the novel begins, Caden is suffering from vivid dreams and hallucinations that he doesn’t tell anyone about. He worries that people are talking about him, and he is anxious all the time. His parents are worried about him.

Caden’s mental health deteriorates to the point where he hears voices, and he thinks someone at school wants to kill him. He is diagnosed with schizophrenia. Although he is not sure this is the right diagnosis, he does know there is something different about him, and he wants help.

The narrative splits between Caden’s real waking life and the internal reality he spends increasingly more time in. This reality involves a pirate captain who hopes Caden will join his crew. The pirate wants to explore a place called Challenger Deep, an unexplored cave complex, and he promises Caden riches in exchange for his allegiance. Caden loves being on the ship, talking to the captain and his pirates; it’s difficult for him to tell the difference between what’is real and what is imagined. Once Caden commits to the voyage, his journey into severe schizophrenia begins. In the real world, he can’t sit still, mumbles to himself, hears voices, and panics all the time. His parents feel he needs more help than they can give him, and they decide to commit him to a hospital.

Although Caden’s parents take him to Seaview Memorial Hospital, Caden is only vaguely aware of this. He can no longer tell when he is in the real world or deep within a delusion. At this point, the captain tells Caden that the journey might take forever, there is no telling how deep the cave is. As Caden sinks deeper and deeper under the captain’s spell, no amount of medication helps.

Caden’s focus turns to the captain’s parrot. The parrot is oddly critical of the captain and wants to stage a mutiny. He wants Caden to abandon the mission and return to shore, or the real world. Caden doesn’t listen to the parrot, but, subconsciously, it’s the parrot that’s keeping him anchored to real life.

The longer Caden is at Seaview, the larger the ship’s crew grows. Caden turns everyone he meets at the hospital into a character on his ship. His roommate, Hal, is the navigator, and his friend, Callie, becomes the wooden maiden at the bow of the ship. Hal loves maps and patterns, so he is well suited to his new job. Caden fancies Callie but thinks she is out of his league.

Caden can’t stop focusing on the parrot. His doctor, Dr. Poirot, speaks to him as this parrot. The parrot is soon joined by Carlyle, the group therapist, who serves on the captain’s crew. Caden and Carlyle become good friends. Carlyle seems to be the only one who can get through to him. When Caden is with Carlyle, he feels safe enough to explore his feelings.

One night, the ship is in chaos. Hal tries to kill himself, and Caden is very distressed. He regresses, losing the progress he’s made, and Carlyle can’t reach him anymore. The hospital fires Carlyle, saying he wasn’t watching Hal closely enough. Hal’s actions weren’t Carlyle’s fault, but the hospital won’t see it that way. When Caden stops seeing Carlyle on the ship, he feels more unstable than ever.

To make matters worse, Callie is released from the hospital. She hasn’t been cured, but she has the medication and clinical support she needs to function at home again. Caden is devastated to lose this critical part of the ship. Though Dr. Poirot tries to support him, Caden descends into the depths of the cave.

In the cave, Caden meets a new character—a homeless man. The man has a cereal box on his head and offers Caden candy. Caden takes the candy and talks to the man. The man warns him that he should be careful because there is no telling how deep the cave is. Caden realizes that this is a metaphor for his mental health. He has reached a threshold, and he knows there is no coming back if he goes deeper into the cave.

As he is mentally ill, Caden cannot fight back against the current pulling him into the cave, but he hears the captain and Dr. Poirot again. They bring him back to the surface, declaring that he is fit to be discharged. As the captain says, the voyage is completed, and he has earned his riches—his freedom.

Once Caden returns home, his parents and his doctors warn him to be patient and not to panic if he feels the pull of the ship again. Caden knows he will never fully be cured, but he has help fighting back against the captain. He goes on more adventures, but he doesn’t sink as deep as before. With his schizophrenia under control, for now, he’s no longer afraid of his feelings.