I almost missed reading books by Gary Paulsen. His books came out well after I would have been interested in reading his kind of adventure stories, and my children had interests in other themes and genres. Fortunately there was a teacher or two who required my children (and their classmates) to read Hatchet – and I often tried to read what they were reading (if I wasn’t already familiar with the book) so that we could talk about.
I enjoyed it and quickly read many of his other books. Which of course brings me now to this, Paulsen’s narrative autobiography.
This is one of the most unusual biographies I’ve ever read. It does not read like a biography. It does not read like a memoir. This reads exactly like one of Paulsen’s adventure tales. This means a couple of different things.
First, this means that the book will be easily read and devoured and enjoyed by the same audience that reads Paulsen’s novels This younger audience is already familiar with how he lays out a plot and narrates a story. He spends most of his time here relating about his early years – the same age as Brian from Hatchet or Russel from Dogsong.
The second thing this means is that Paulsen had an extraordinary childhood. The subtitle, “Surviving a Lost Childhood,” isn’t just hype to make the book sound more interesting.
Before he was even school age, Gary was witness to the horrors of war. He lived in Manilla where his military father was stationed. His father was mostly absent – which was probably a good thing. When he was home, Gary’s parents were abusive alcoholics – worse together than separate. He learns at this time to fend for himself and to not trust adults.
He is shipped off to live with and aunt and uncle – the first time he’s ever shown any warmth or caring – and it is here, through the gruff manner of his uncle that he learns how to venture safely outside in the wilderness.
But just as he is learning to trust in his family foster parents, his mother and father move back to the United States and want him ‘home.’ A young child doesn’t have much say in this, and most would assume that being with his real mother and father is best for him.
Not much has changed in their behavior and when he’s not stuck living in the corner of a cold basement, he is living outside, sleeping under the stars.
Another positive, memorable moment in his early life is when he discovered the public library and the kind librarian (whom at first he didn’t trust because, like all adults, she must have had a secret agenda) who exposes him to the many worlds found in books, and encourages him to write down his own thoughts (when he tells her all the inaccuracies in the books he’s read).
It’s a powerful autobiography, and more than just a little depressing. Paulsen saw, and experienced, more terrible things before he was a teen than most people will in a lifetime.
This will definitely appeal to anyone who’s read a Gary Paulsen book, and it might very well reach a new audience who will come to discover some of his classic books because of this biography.
Looking for a good book? Gone to the Woods, Gary Paulsen’s autobiography is quite possibly more adventurous and frightening, more a tale of survival, than his classic children’s books.
I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Lost Childhood
author: Gary Paulsen
publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
hardcover, 368 pages