In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Independent living

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Your mention of Julie of the Wolves reminded me of another One Young Person Surviving the Wilderness story which I read in elementary school: My Side of the Mountain.  I'd forgotten, if I ever knew, that both books were written by the same author, Jean Craighead George.  My memories of the book were fairly dim -- a snowstorm, a hollow tree, a bird -- and I don't think it's a book I ever reread, which says something about how much I liked it, as I was an inveterate rereader.  I thought of how much Eleanor loved the Little House books, with their highly specific details about how to make and do the things necessary for life in the Big Woods and on the prairie, and of how much she loved the running away and planning in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and wondered if My Side of the Mountain  would be a good book to go to next.  Happily, it's one of those classics that is easily found on the shelves of my local library, without having to request it from another branch.  I took it out and reread it today.  And remembered why I do not love this book.

On one level, it's a really interesting story: 12-year-old Sam Gribley decides he's fed up with life in a New York apartment with his eight brothers and sisters, and runs away to live alone on land owned by his family in the Catskill Mountains.  He is amazingly successful at feeding, clothing, and housing himself, and George provides copious details about how to hollow out a tree to live in, and which plants are edible.  Sam steals a baby falcon from her nest and trains her up to hunt for him; for much of the book, the falcon Frightful is his only companion.  Sam enjoys the solitude at first, but then begins to look for human companionship, and has a few interactions with people who come across him on the mountain: a lost college professor, a boy his age who wants to be a newspaper reporter.  Though he's tried to escape into the wilderness, he ultimately creates civilization around himself.

I think what keeps me from entering into the story more is Sam's total competence.  Nowhere in the book does he explain how he knows so much about every aspect of living in the woods.  At the beginning, he refers to not knowing at first how to start a fire with a flint, and later he describes having to try building a chimney for his treehouse a few times before getting it right, but his narration is largely straightforward: then I skinned the deer and tanned its hide and made a perfect pair of pants.  Really?  On your first try?  After coming from an apartment in New York City?  I buy that a city boy would want to run away to the wilderness, and that he might know something about how to survive.  (My own brother, Michael, chafed at growing up in New York and once in high school went so far as to plan to run away to the Grand Canyon; later in life, he learned to farm, to butcher cows, and to camp pretty much anywhere.)  In a preface to the edition I read, Jean Craighead George writes that in her own childhood, her father took her camping and taught her about wilderness survival, and her brothers trained falcons.  Giving that kind of background to Sam would make his abilities more believable, but in the narrative there's almost no reference to his family or life before running away.  His voice reads largely like a summary of his experience, a kind of animated How To Survive in the Woods.  His character is stoic, and I find it hard to imagine a truly stoic 12-year-old.

So this won't be the next book I pick up with Eleanor.  Perhaps she'll like it herself, in a few years time.

Love, Annie

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