Prolific author Gary Paulsen writes powerful, simple stories told from the perspective of enterprising youngsters who learn how to triumph over adversity.
The only thing difficult about Gary Paulsen’s con-sistently powerful books is figuring out who they’re for. Many of the more than six dozen titles Paulsen has written — including his latest, The River — are designated for young readers within a suggested age range. But many of Paulsen’s stories, or large parts of them, are suitable for reading aloud to pre-readers. And readers well beyond the suggested age guidelines may find themselves drawn to Paulsen’s books because he writes about broad themes, such as struggling to survive and appreciating the natural world.
What’s easy to discern is why Paulsen’s stories work. He writes clearly and honestly about subjects he knows intimately; his prose has dramatic impact yet is written undramatically. Sensational events are presented in an unsensational way. Among the best of his books (all deserving A‘s) are:
Dancing Carl (1983)
A crucial part of fishing, a subject Paulsen writes knowledgeably about, is setting the hook. It’s part of writing, too, and Paulsen knows it’s done by luring the reader with tantalizing bits of information. One suspects the author would prefer a cane pole to a fancy fly rod: He writes deceptively simple prose. Dancing Carl seems especially effortless, partly because it’s told from the point of view of two 12-year-olds.
The year is 1958, the setting a Minnesota town. During the winter, Carl Wenstrom shows up. Marsh Knuteson and buddy Willy Taylor are mesmerized by Carl, a World War II veteran. Carl is mysterious, known to drink, given to strange, ballet-like dancing, and haunted by a horrible memory from the war. This silent, secretive man bewitches the entire town. Those who fall under Carl’s spell undergo an enchanting transformation. Readers will too.
One of Paulsen’s strengths is the power of his sentences. Every word counts. There is no unnecessary detail to narrow the boundaries of a reader’s imagination. Nowhere is that strength more apparent than in this lean 90-page novel about a 13-year-old boy unable to accept his cancer-stricken grandfather’s impending death. For the last three years, they had hunted deer together. This year, Grandpa insists John go by himself. As John relentlessly pursues a beleaguered doe, the hunt takes on a broader meaning: The real quarry becomes the emotional solace he so desperately seeks.
Fourteen-year-old Russel Susskit lives in an Eskimo coastal village. Disenchanted by what progress has done to his home, Russel seeks the counsel of Oogruk, an aged mystic who owns the last team of sled dogs in town. Soon Russel is off on a harrowing, uplifting journey that becomes an odyssey of the human spirit. Paulsen writes lyrically and lovingly about the adventure and the boy’s metamorphosis in the wilderness.
The Crossing (1987)
Fourteen-year-old Manny Bustos and Army Sgt. Robert S. Locke live three miles apart, but they might as well be on different planets for all they seem to share. This is vintage Paulsen — with a twist: The subject is a boy alone, but this time the backdrop against which he plays out his struggle is strictly urban. Manny, an orphan, lives in Juárez, Mexico — if begging, brawling, and drifting can be called living. Locke is stationed at Fort Bliss, Tex. Their paths collide the night Manny tries to pick the drunken sergeant’s pocket. As it turns out, Locke is as desperate as the boy: Each seeks liberation from his own set of nightmares. For Manny, they are squalor and hunger; for Locke, they are ghosts of Vietnam. The two confront their evil dreams in Paulsen’s tautly written ending, which is shocking and yet emotionally satisfying.
Coping, a recurring theme in many Paulsen books, dominates this outdoor survival adventure (the basis of a limited-release 1990 film, A Cry in the Wild, starring Ned Beatty, Jared Rushton, and Pamela Sue Martin). The author’s familiarity with the subject matter — animals, the woods, and the teenage mind — gives the novel an authentic feel. Paulsen so carefully orchestrates scenes, juxtaposing moments of humor with flashes of high drama, that the writing takes on a sustained urgency, forcing the reader to find out how 13-year-old, city-bred Brian Robeson can survive after the single-engine plane in which he is riding crashes into an isolated lake.
The Winter Room (1989)
Paulsen knows writing is an unspoken dialogue, a communication between author and reader that succeeds only when both sides participate actively. In this evocative fictional account of a year on a Minnesota farm, he invites that participation through the voice of 11-year-old Eldon, whose recollection ought to be mandatory reading for every kid who thinks pork chops originate at the supermarket. The long hours, back-breaking work, and endless chores are all here, but so too are the memories of nights spent around the wood stove, listening to Uncle David’s stories. One tale, about a woodcutter of extraordinary skill, becomes the focus of a climax some readers may find predictable. Nevertheless, it’s the sort of ending that gives kids goose bumps and, better yet, the right impression of the joys of reading.
The Boy Who Owned the School (1990)
Writing a comedy about a nerdy high school kid for young people is dicey: No group of readers has more ability to unmask someone who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But Paulsen’s depiction of the bumbling, bespectacled Jacob Freisten is right on target. So is Paulsen’s memory of the stereotypes that abound in every high school. Jacob’s life changes when his English teacher offers him a chance to salvage a passing grade by taking part in a school play starring his dream girl. When she falls through a stage trapdoor during the uproarious climax, he saves her life and resurrects part of his own.
Above all, Paulsen is a storyteller, and in this engaging autobiographical potpourri, he candidly tells his own story — about giving up hunting, taking up dogsledding, and learning more about himself in the process. The style is typical Paulsen: straightforward, matter of fact. The book ends with a fast-paced, you-are-there account of the ups (traversing the majestic Alaska Range) and downs (being dragged through a boulder-strewn gorge) of his first Iditarod, a 1,180-mile dogsled race from Anchorage to Nome.
The Cookcamp (1991)
For those who have forgotten what it was like to be 5 years old, Paulsen’s sensitive portrait of one boy’s summer during World War II will rekindle the memories. An unnamed boy, his father off to war, lives with his mother in Chicago. Soon after he discovers his mom is sexually involved with a stranger, she sends the boy to northern Minnesota to live with his grandmother, the cook for nine men at a road-building camp. The boy becomes pals with the men, gets to ride with them on their earth-moving equipment, and, joy of joys, even learns how to spit.
Paulsen respectfully conveys the egocentric perspective from which a young boy views his world, and, in the last chapter, crafts an affectionate homage to a grandmother one assumes was his own.
The River (1991)
Published in June, this sequel to Hatchet chronicles a second trip Brian makes to the woods, this time at the request of the U.S. government, which wants to learn firsthand about survival techniques that could be passed on to pilots, astronauts, and soldiers. Psychologist Derek Holtzer accompanies Brian and notes his every move. They encounter few problems — so few that Brian feels the trip is unrealistically easy — until a violent storm strikes. Although the premise seems farfetched and the novel lacks the consistent tension of Hatchet, Paulsen fans may not notice — or care.