Title: The Death of Yorik Mortwell
Author: Stephen Messer (illustrated by Gris Grimly)
Genre: Middle-grade Fantasy Books
Age Category: 9 years +
Fantasy Book: The Death of Yorik Mortwell
It’s not every day you come across a book where the hero dies in the first chapter. But in The Death of Yorik Mortwell, that’s exactly what happens to 12-year-old Yorik Mortwell, orphaned son of a gamekeeper at Ravenby Manor: he dies. Fortunately for the readers, Yorik does not pass quietly into the great beyond, but returns as a ghost.
Upon his return, he is greeted almost immediately by the spoiled and curiously powerful silver-haired Princess and her peculiar (and ailing) friend Erde, who live in an enchanted glade on the grounds. After briefly considering exacting vengeance on his killer, Yorik realizes that something dark and deadly is stalking the manor grounds and the house itself, while the Princess’s friend Erde seems to be wasting away into nothing. Yorik quickly loses his taste for revenge, and is consumed with concern for Erde and for his still-living younger sister Susan, a servant in the Ravenby House. He is determined to defeat the Dark Ones—but what are they? Where did they come from? Why are there so many? And what is one little ghost boy to do against such dark forces?
The story is punctuated with grimly comedic illustrations, which are decent enough but cannot survive the invited comparison to the master Edward Gorey.
Subjective Appeal: Grim and Gruesome Fantasy with a Light Heart
The front flap of this book notes that it will be popular with fans of Edward Gorey (to whom the author and illustrator clearly owe a debt), Lemony Snicket, and Neil Gaiman’s inimitable The Graveyard Book. An impressive statement, that, but the book manages very nearly to live up to it. By starting with the death of the main character, there is immediately a sense of the grim tone that so endeared A Series of Unfortunate Events to its readers. And Yorik is not the only one to meet such a fate. Neither of the Ravenby children survive the story, and Yorik’s father dies before the book even begins. Yet the story never becomes self-pitying or morose—Yorik picks his ghost self up and starts back to work, unfazed by his transition to the world of the no-longer-living. This dark flavor has a certain charm that makes the book quite appealing to many children’s morbid sensibilities.
Then, too, the somber mood highlights the fantastical elements of the story. In addition to Yorik’s ghostly self, we meet an otherworldly Princess—imperious and rather snotty, she is capable of almost limitless magic in the confines of her glade, but unable (or unwilling) to cross its borders. She has been imprisoned there for reasons she refuses to divulge. Her odd moon-faced friend Erde, dripping with mud, has an equally fantastic and mysterious history, and even has a few powers of her own. Talking topiary animals converse with Yorik, while the Dark Ones haunt the manor, whispering evil into the ears of anyone who will listen—that is, until the kennelmaster’s demon-dogs chase them into the night. The story rises to an amusingly anti-climactic showdown between good and evil, and a female heroine provides the ultimate resolution!
All of this adds up to a delicious spooky and morbid tale that never loses its buoyant, childlike spirit. And with a [SPOILER] happy ending to boot, all but the most sensitive readers will be able to enjoy the thrills and chills without any actual distress.
Developmental Value: Death and Sin
With a ghost for a main character, it’s hardly surprising that this book says something about death. Here, death is presented as a common reality—three of the major characters are dead, as is the hero’s father, and two more characters (and more than one dog) meet untimely ends along the way. This normalizing of death may be extremely encouraging to young readers, as it shows them that loss is a part of life—like stubbing your toe or going to the dentist. There is also, for these characters, some sort of life after death, and the dead can still do good or evil in the world. With concepts like this percolating in the background (and occasionally the foreground) of the story, it could easily be a catalyst for important conversations about death, grief, morality, and what comes after death.
Perhaps even more important, however, is the focus on sin and guilt. We see three different responses to wrongdoing—one from the side of the wronged party, and two contrasting responses by the wrong-ers. In Yorik, we see a picture of what to do when someone has wronged you—that is, forgive. Although he is originally inclined to punish his killer, he rapidly abandons this plan in order to pursue other, more important goals—in this case, the protection of his still-living sister and, by extension, the Manor where she works and all its inhabitants. By letting go of his anger, he is able to roam freely over the grounds in a way his vengeful self could not. Later, in a series of direct confrontations with his killer, Yorik verbally extends forgiveness, realizing that his killer was, like so many others, a victim of the Dark Ones’ lies.
Yorik’s killer is, in turn, a cautionary tale—he knows he has wronged others, and is unable to respond to his guilt correctly. He killed Yorik out of fear of exposure for previous wrongs, and is now plagued with guilt both for his original transgressions and for Yorik’s death, and is consumed with fear that he will be discovered. He responds to his guilt with despair and violence, and is unwilling to accept the forgiveness offered him (much to his own—and others’—detriment).
The Princess likewise struggles with guilt for her own ‘unforgivable sin’, but her response is much healthier. Throughout the course of the story, she is gradually convinced that forgiveness is possible, even for her ‘sin’. She apologizes for her wrong, demonstrates repentance, receives forgiveness, and is reconciled to her punisher. Her revelation—that is, that forgiveness is possible and should be sought—proves vital to the climax and resolution of the larger story.
All of which provides an excellent structure for discussing sin, confession, reconciliation, and forgiveness. Children learn that hiding wrongdoing is a recipe for personal disaster, that confession is good for the soul, that forgiveness is always possible, and that they, in turn, should forgive others. With such a great set of life lessons wrapped up in an eerily entertaining story, I couldn’t help enjoying this little book.
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