When I turned eight years old, I received a large black book for my birthday. It contained three books inside it. Summer vacation had just started so that night I cracked open the book.
When I read that first page my world shifted. I had read books for school but nothing like this. It was like getting hit with lightning.
The first story was Tracker, it’s about a boy going out alone to hunt deer. Once he finds a doe he walks her down until he’s able to touch her fur.
In his mind he reasons that if he is able to walk down a deer then his grandfather will no longer die of cancer.
That’s the thing about the book. On the surface, it’s a story about a kid out hunting deer, but it’s really about a little boy coming to terms with his grandfather dying.
My little world was rocked.
I dove into the next book immediately.
It was a tale called Dogsong. This one was right up my alley. For some reason at this age I was obsessed with dog mushing. I wanted to move to Alaska and race the Iditarod. I even tried making a harness for our family dog and trying to have her pull me in a sled. It did not work out well.
Needless to say, I loved it. It’s about a guy named Russell who returns to the old ways of running dogs instead of the snow machines his village usually uses. An old man teaches him how to run dogs.
The book is a heck of an adventure. He eventually rescues a woman out in the wild and kills a polar bear.
I was now two thirds of the way through the book. I couldn’t fathom how he could top the last book.
I turned the page to find a boy sitting in an airplane. I was so disappointed. I wanted more stories about hunting in the wilderness.
So I put the book down, I went up north for the summer and didn’t revisit it until it was time to return for school.
At one point we had to read during class and I picked the large black book up again. The other kids marveled at it’s sheer heft. I didn’t have the heart to admit it was three books in one.
I started the tale. It took me a couple pages to get into it, but soon I was reading about a plane crash and a kid named Brian having to survive on his own. If you are familiar at all with Gary Paulsen, you know what book about which I am writing. It’s the book most associated with him, Hatchet.
I was enthralled.
I couldn’t put the book down. I would keep reading it long after reading time was over. I’d keep the book in my lap during our lessons, sneaking peeks while I was supposed to be learning multiplication.
The book was marvelous. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was with Brian as he caught fish and learned how to make a fire using his trusty hatchet.
He caught “fool” birds and built himself a little home in the Canadian bush. I couldn’t put it down. I read it over and over. I wore the pages thin in places, and the spine is cracked.
More than once my third grade teacher, Mrs. Monk would make me put the book on her desk so I’d stop reading it during class time. She would later give me her copy of Brian’s Winter, on the promise that wouldn’t read it during math class. She sadly passed on a few years ago, but I still have both books. I keep them together, picking them up from time to time.
The book did more than just teach me to love books.
It made me love the outdoors as well.
I spent a fair bit of time in Michigan’s backwoods, and I went on my own adventures, though none as harrowing as Brian’s. I learned to make fire with flint like Brian did. I also made my own bows using the instructions from another Gary Paulsen book, Guts: The True Stories Behind Hatchet and the Brian Books.
Guts gave me a whole new perspective on the author. The book is a memoir about his time as a teenager in Minnesota.
Pauslen didn’t have an easy life. His parents were alcoholics and he learned to hunt and fish so he could feed himself. At one point he ran away to work on a sugar beet farm.
He had quite the life. Some writers just write, but he had so many adventures to draw on. He ran the Iditarod, joined the army, and lived on a houseboat in the Pacific.
He was an incredible writer taking on complex themes and making them approachable. His books were for teens but anyone could read them. His words were able to transport you. You like you were there.
I can still remember my heart pounding reading the tale of his first deer hunt with a bow. He’d taken you along the way from carving the bow to the animal surprising him in the woods and nearly running him over.
It was with a heavy heart that I read that he passed away today. It’s so strange to mourn someone you’ve never met.
But I was sad just the same. Every time I pick up that old book I’m eight years old again. It’s a strange bit of magic he worked on me that summer, and I’ll never forget those books.
Gary Paulsen passed away at the age of 82. He was a Newberry award finalist and he won the Margaret Edwards award winner for a significant body of work and last contribution to young adult literature.