‘The Fort” by Gordon Korman is a thoughtful middle grade novel about secrets and what we hide from even our best friends

The Fort by Gordon Korman

Gordon Korman has been writing books for a long time—since he was twelve years old, in fact. As he explains in the Author’s Note, he wrote his first book in 7th grade as a fluke of an assignment. Scholastic published it two years later, and—luckily for middle grade readers and teachers— he’s been writing ever since. His books are always thoughtful, engaging and realistic. When kids read Korman’s books they see kids a lot like them: imperfect kids, kids with insecurity, kids who don’t fit in, and kids who are different.

“The Fort, his 100th book, is no different. We meet four middle school best friends: Evan, Jason, Mitchell, and CJ, plus the new kid in town, Ricky. Ricky is a year younger than the four friends, but he’s gifted, so he skipped a grade. He’s hoping to get into the magnet school where he’ll be put back in 7th grade with his peers. His mother works with Evan’s mother, so Evan is asked to let Ricky hang out the afternoon after a hurricane blows through town.

The four friends and Ricky go to see how their fort dealt with the hurricane. It was just a shower curtain and some branches, so it pretty much disappeared. But because of the storm surge, Ricky sees a square metal plate in the ground. He investigates, and they find an underground bunker. It’s an underground bunker built by the richest man in town, and it appears to be undisturbed since the ’80s. The kids are determined to keep their new “fort” a secret, and what we learn is that each of them has a secret of his own.

The narrative is told in first person from all five kids’ points of view, and there’s one entry from Evan’s brother Luke, who has begun to hang out with a real juvenile delinquent named Jaeger. Evan and Luke’s parents were addicted to drugs and disappeared when the boys were younger, leaving them to be raised by their grandparents. Mitchell suffers from OCD, and he counts everything and thinks the number 13 is deadly. He’s furious at the psychiatrist he was seeing because when his mother lost her job and her health insurance, he couldn’t go any more. He thinks the doctor dumped him because they couldn’t pay, and he has a plan for revenge. CJ is used to being envied by his friends because of all the neat gifts from his stepfather. But what they don’t know is that he gets the gifts resulting from his stepfather’s guilt after he abuses and hurts the boy. CJ thinks of creative ways to hide his bruises and fractured ribs, and his friends don’t suspect that he’s hiding what might be a very dangerous—to him—secret. Jason doesn’t really have a secret he’s hiding from his friends, but rather a secret he’s hiding from his girlfriend, Janelle, whose father is a police officer in town.

What all five boys have in common now is a big secret they are all hiding together: the fort. That shared secret serves to advance Ricky’s membership in their close-knit group. But is the fort also a metaphor for the secrets that each boy is hiding? Maybe I’m overthinking it, because sometimes, a fort is just a fort. But it would be an interesting discussion to have with kids reading the book to ask them what they think. Is there evidence in the book that might lead to that conclusion? Also for discussion should be the nature of the secrets that the boys—at least some of them—are keeping. Some secrets are dangerous, like the secret about the physical abuse, which only Ricky comes to understand. He’s the one who shares that abuse with the others in the group so they can help CJ. Some secrets are fairly benign, like Mitchell’s revenge on the absent doctor. A group discussion on secrets is always powerful for students — what kinds of secrets are okay to keep versus what secrets should be shared with trusted friends or people in authority.

This would be an excellent book to read to a whole class. The discussions about not only secrets but friendship, the Cold War, stealing from the public (the electricity is hooked up to the public library), and the simple fact that none of us is perfect are all excellent and thoughtful topics for student conversations and writing assignments. Korman does it again—a book that entertains, touches the heart, celebrates friendship, and makes us think.

Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s copy provided by Scholastic, the publisher, for review purposes.