Gary Paulsen: A Writer of His Time
Between 1967 and 1976 three books were published that focused on a search for meaning and a system of values based on the author's personal relationship with the harsh yet ultimately comic natural world. Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America (1976), Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), and Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It and Other Stories (1976) combined autobiography with fiction as the authors reexamined moments of their pasts.
Gary Paulsen, beginning his writing career in the same era, addressed the same concerns in his eighteen young adult books, beginning with Mr. Tucket (1968) and continuing on through Canyons (1990) and Woodsong (1990), a nonfictional account of his racing a dog-sled team in the Alaskan Iditarod. Paulsen's books share common characteristics that stem from his personal experiences. Enclosed in the universal coming-of-age package used by other young adult novelists are rural Midwestern settings, usually in Minnesota, Paulsen's native state; a reminiscence of the character's youthful past, often the 1950s, when Paulsen was growing up; relationships with sympathetic adults, some related, some not (Paulsen was raised by his grandmother and spent significant time with aunts and uncles); alcoholic parents (Paulsen's father was); adults who have suffered lasting physical or psychological damage from a war experience (again, Paulsen's father, and the subject of Paulsen's first nonfiction book, The Special War); and boys who face a direct struggle with nature while they learn about the interrelationships between man, animals, and death, a long-time Paulsen fascination.
Not all of these characteristics appear in each novel. To gain a greater insight into Paulsen's craft, it is helpful to separate his books by point of view. The first-person narratives, Winterkill (1976), The Foxman (1977), Tiltawhirl John (1977), Popcorn Days and Buttermilk Nights (1983), Dancing Carl (1983), and The Winter Room (1989) are in many ways Paulsen's best because in each novel the reader is drawn immediately into the protagonist's life.
Winterkill, Paulsen's first successful young adult novel, contains many of the elements found throughout his work. It is such a personal story that it provoked a libel suit that went all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court before being decided in the author's favor. This situation caused Paulsen so much anxiety that he gave up writing for almost two years. It was during this period that he took up trapping and dog sledding, two activities that influenced his later writing.
In Winterkill, the narrator, who goes unnamed, looks back on his troubled teen years and tells the story of the police officer Duda, who guided him toward manhood. Duda, as we find out, is no ordinary cop-on-the-beat. He is an explosive and frequently violent man, a victim, like the town drunk, Carl, of a war he cannot forget. He openly accepts bribes, has a nickname of "Nuts," and spends much of his shift sleeping with the town madam, Bonnie, the proverbial hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold. He refers to the boy and some of the other young miscreants as "puke kids," but it is obvious the author wants us to see that underneath his tough exterior is a soft-hearted sentimentalist.
When the court takes the kid away from his drunken abusive parents and sends him to work for a religious fanatic farmer determined to beat the fear of God into the boy, Duda rescues him and brings him back home. He talks the kid out of marrying a girl impregnated by someone else and stops him from robbing a garage.
Then, as the book moves toward its violent conclusion, the author introduces a technique of overt foreshadowing similar to that used by Maclean in A River Runs Through It. He tells us Duda will die but leaves us wondering when and how. His sympathy for this character is such that it is as if even he wished things could turn out otherwise.
And I would like to stop the story of Duda here and tell how he got his divorce and married Bonnie and they adopted me and we bought a farm . . . . That's how it would end in a movie, with Rock Hudson playing Duda and Doris Day playing Bonnie, and that's how it should end, and that's how I dream of it ending almost every night, until I wake up sweating and remember that it isn't a movie and it doesn't end that way. (p. 137)
It is clear Paulsen envisioned his work as a tragedy. After Duda guns down two on-the-run bank robbers in cold blood, he escapes being shot by a quarreling husband and wife only to be killed by a run-away minister's son with a deer rifle.
Winterkill is in many respects a prototype for ensuing Paulsen novels. It is more episodic than plotted (a trait more true of the first-person neo-autobiographies than the more distant third-person narratives), and focuses on character -- both the developing character of the confused protagonist, and, perhaps more importantly, that of the adult role model destined to become the victim of his flawed personality and own poor choices.
The Foxman is a logical extension of Winterkill because it uses several of the same components. The narrator is an unhappy fifteen-year-old boy (again, unnamed) sent to northern Minnesota by a judge to live with an aunt and uncle when the boy's alcoholic parents become too abusive. On the farm the boy adapts to a slower-paced life than what he was used to in the city. He and his cousin Carl become close, and one day while skiing in the backwoods they meet the mysterious Foxman.
The Foxman, so called because of the fox pelts that hang on the inside of his hut, wears a mask and lives alone because of the physical (and spiritual) disfigurement he suffered during World War II. The boy returns to the woods many times and learns from the Foxman the art of wilderness survival and the man's Thoreauean-style philosophy that emphasizes the pleasures of the mind and the ennoblement of the spirit. Then, during a sudden blizzard, the boy loses his way and suffers snow blindness. The Foxman saves him, but it is obvious to the boy now that the Foxman's cough is serious and he will not live much longer. The Foxman dies, a common characteristic found in initiation myths, but the boy has learned enough to pursue the beauty and love the Foxman knew but lost in the war.
Popcorn Days and Buttermilk Nights introduces yet another disturbed youth, this one named Carley, who comes to small-town Norsten from Minneapolis, where he was fast becoming a juvenile delinquent. Here he stays with Uncle David, a huge man with a Norwegian accent who is both a farmer and a blacksmith. Though he initially has trouble adjusting to a bucolic life-style and thinks David and his large family are a bit backward, he comes to love them and see the beauty in the golden popcorn days and buttermilk nights of fall.
The family's poverty becomes apparent, especially to Uncle David, when he can't afford to take them to a circus forty miles away. Here the author interjects epiphany and metaphor to get to the heart of the novel's theme. While drinking beer at the hole-in-the-wall bar adjacent to his blacksmith's shop, Uncle David hits on the idea of building his own circus. "To hell with them," he tells Carley defiantly. "I'm going to make my own" (p. 86). Uncle David utilizes his blacksmith skills to make what he can't buy -- the same way he has forged Carley into a caring human being who realizes material wealth is no measure of a man's worth.
Tiltawhirl John draws also on events from Paulsen's life to demonstrate how a young boy changes and grows after spending the summer touring with a vagabond group of carnival performers. The nameless narrator leaves his northeastern North Dakota farm during his sixteenth summer and travels west where he accepts work hoeing sugar beets. He hoes alongside illegal Mexican immigrants and learns just how cruel a man his employer, Karl Elsner, is. After Elsner brutally beats him when the boy complains about being cheated of his wages, the boy runs away and is discovered stumbling along the highway by a trio of carnies: Tiltawhirl John, a con man with a secret past; Billy the Geek, John's twin brother; and Wanda, John's lover and a stripper with a heart-of-gold.
Initially the men don't want to take the boy along, but Wanda convinces them, and soon the boy is a member of their itinerant troupe. Right away he finds that carnies live by rules of their own. Their creed is simple. There are only two kinds of people, fellow carnies and what Billy calls "turkeys and toads," the customers the carnies cynically dupe as a matter of survival.
The boy enjoys the remainder of the summer as the carnival travels through the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Nebraska. He falls in love and has his first sexual experience with a fellow traveler, Janet, and thinks he might continue with his new-found way of life. But then the past catches up with Tiltawhirl John. Wanda's old lover Tucker shows up, and he and John engage in a ritualistic knife fight that leaves Tucker dead. The life that looked so good before has now been darkened by its seamy underside.
Even Janet and the money couldn't make up for the way Tucker was sliding down and down as T-John's knife carved him up, and when he finally hit the ground and was dead I knew I wasn't a carny. (p. 125)
Dancing Carl is a drama that shows how a man can lift himself out of a deep-rooted depression through acts of courage and beauty. Dancing Carl, true to its name, was later set to dance and aired over Minnesota Public Television.
Marsh, the narrator, and his friend Willy spend their winters skating at the local rink. This particular winter they meet Carl, an enigmatic older man who takes care of the rink for the small northern Minnesota town. Carl is a World War II veteran, mentally unbalanced, who drinks regularly from a flask. He earns his name from the magical way he dances around the rink with his hands extended. The boys wonder about Carl's strange ice dance and decide to approach him to find out his secret. Marsh makes the mistake of bringing along his B-17 model. When Carl sees the plane, he smashes it to the ground and lapses into a trance in which he spits out his secret story. During the war, the plane he was flying in crashed, and Carl watched in horror as his plane and the nine other soldiers burned to death.
The boys feel awful about what they have done. Marsh, in particular, sees some secrets are best left buried.
Halfway home I threw the model in a garbage can, threw the work away, and maybe I cried some and I thought how awful it was that you could mean well and do so much damage to someone. (p. 80)
Then when Carl appears to have sunk into a deeper depression, Helen comes to town and begins to skate regularly at the rink. Like Carl she is mentally ill, but Carl, through his dancing, is able to convey a special love to her that only she can understand. As the book ends, we learn from Marsh that Carl and Helen, despite some temporary happiness together, have met with tragic ends. As in the previous novels, the teenage narrator learns about life's cruel realities through the tragedy of an older person's life.
The Winter Room, too, is a tragedy in which the young narrator Eldon and his older brother Wayne learn painful lessons from their older Uncle David's apparent deceit. On their farm in the middle of a frigid Minnesota winter, the boys sit around the wood stove with their parents and Uncle David and listen to his stories about Vikings and wood elves. One night David tells a story that is seemingly more real. He speaks of how he can make two axes meet in the center of a log and split it in two by swinging the two axes simultaneously at the log's opposite ends. Wayne is skeptical and grows angry and complains to his father and Eldon. Unbeknownst to Wayne, Uncle David hears his accusations.
They looked like the pig's eyes just after Father cut its throat and it knew it was going to die. All pain and confused . . . Uncle David's eyes were, so hurt and ripped that it seemed he would crumble, and I could not shut Wayne up. (p. 94)
The night-time fireside stories stop; the family is broken apart until Uncle David, thinking he is alone, attempts the log-splitting feat. He succeeds as Eldon and Wayne watch -- both cognizant now that myth and reality often mesh in a magical mixture of their own.
Of the twelve other Paulsen novels, this article will examine only five, all presented from the third-person point of view. These novels include Tracker (1984), Dogsong (1985), Sentries (1986), The Crossing (1987), and The Island (1988).
Dogsong, inspired by Paulsen's experience with dog sledding, features Russel Susskit, a fourteen-year-old Eskimo boy living outside of civilization in his Alaskan village. Despite their isolation, the natives have been corrupted by the white man's culture symbolized by the fast-paced snowmobiles. Only the old man Oogruk still retains his dog-sled team, and he is fast losing both his eyesight and his health.
Oogruk and Russel become friends, and Oogruk teaches the boy about the dogs and about the songs and journeys of his and his people's real and mythical pasts. Then, as in all heroic myths, Russel must complete the rites of passage from boy to man and embark on his own journey -- one in which he will incorporate Oogruk's legacy unto himself while meeting the harsh realities of nature head on.
Russel and the dog team travel north into the remote Alaskan interior on their way toward the Bering Sea. Here the boy masters the intricacies of wilderness survival -- overcoming the hardships of hunger, fear, and being lost before meeting his greatest challenge: coming face-to-face with his vision of Russel the mammoth hunter, a part-real, part-mythic ancestor of another time, and another dimension of Russel's undiscovered self:
The dream had folded into his life and his life had folded back into the dream so many times that it was not possible for him to find which was real and which was dream. (p. 146)
As both the dream and the reality unfold, Russel meets a pregnant Eskimo girl, Nancy, and together they complete the journey that forever changes them.
Tracker, too, revolves around a boy's search for his spiritual essence amidst the hardships of nature. In this sense both Dogsong and Tracker are similar to the religious quest story lines of much of contemporary Native American literature. Paulsen, talking about this aspect of his writing, has said that "spiritual progress has nothing to do with organized religion; it's a personal thing" (Senick, pp. 167-178).
In Tracker, John Borne, thirteen, lives with his grandparents on their northern Minnesota farm. Each winter John and his grandfather hunt the nearby woods for deer meat that will feed them throughout the long hard months. But this winter John's grandfather cannot hunt; he is dying of cancer, and it is up to John to bring home the needed meat. Like Russel in Dogsong, John must remember everything the older man has taught him, and must figure out why a doe he spots outside the barn doesn't run when he comes upon her.
On the hunt John sees the doe again and follows her, thinking he must kill her, but then realizing he can't.
In the night he changed from following the deer to becoming the deer. A part of him went out to the deer and a part of the deer went out of her into him, across the white light and he wasn't the same. He would never be the same again. (p. 76)
He follows the deer farther into the woods, wanting now only to touch her, thinking that by doing so he will capture the essence of life that he will transfer to his grandfather to save him from death. After touching the deer, John returns home, but finds that death is inevitable for both his grandfather and all living things. His ultimate discovery is that life is neither tragic nor comic, but woven together, or to use Paulsen's words, "just simply is."
What I'm exploring is that almost mystical relationship that develops between the hunter and the hunted. It's a relationship with its own integrity, not to be violated. (Senick, pp. 167-178)
The Island is in some ways Paulsen's best effort because it brings together the neo-spiritualism of Dogsong and Tracker with the fully rounded characterization of Winterkill and The Winter Room. Wil Neuton, fourteen, has lived all his life in the safe confines of Madison, Wisconsin, where, like most teenagers, he has been suffocated by shopping malls and the mass media. Then his father suddenly announces he has been transferred by the state highway department to the northern part of the state where they will live in a small cabin in the woods.
Wil thinks his life is over until they move and he discovers Sucker Lake and its special uninhabited little island. Soon Wil is spending his days there -- mostly alone, sometimes joined by Susan, a new-found love. Like Thoreau in Walden and Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (a New York Times reviewer called The Island "Zen and the Art of Boyhood"), Wil uncovers some fundamental truths about himself and his world. The path he takes is similar to that followed by Huck Finn in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Brautigan in Trout Fishing in America.
And as with Huck's Jackson's Island, evil lurks around -- first in the form of the village bully, Ray, whom Wil fights and defeats, and then as Wil's father, who thinks his boy has gone crazy and needs help. The news media learns of Wil's experiment and attempts to turn him into a cliché, but Wil stays on his island, a metaphor for the magical circle he has drawn around his unlocked soul.
Alone. He was somehow more apart from his parents than he had ever been because they were so against what he was doing. Alone from his family. Alone from his parents. Alone from what he knew. (p. 171)
In the end Wil returns, but he, like Paulsen's other individualistic protagonists, has irrevocably changed.
The Crossing and Sentries are both worth mentioning because of their strong themes and absorbing stories. The Crossing exhibits a strong Hemingway influence in a poignant story of Manuel Bustos. Manny is fourteen, and as long as he can remember he has been an orphan living day-to-day as a beggar in the poverty and squalor of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. His dream is to cross the border to find the paradisiacal life in Los Estados Unidos. His plans are thwarted; his dreams appear doomed until he meets American Army Sergeant Robert Locke, a Vietnam veteran stationed at Fort Bliss, north of El Paso, Texas.
Locke, like Paulsen's other veterans, cannot forget the war and crosses the border each night to drown himself in drink. In the tragic ending Hemingway would have loved, Locke dies in a knife fight to save Manny and give him the opportunity to cross the border and find that better world Locke has lost.
Sentries is Paulsen's most ambitious work. In it he interweaves the stories of four teenagers with the lives of three mentally and physically scarred war veterans. While it seems their lives will never touch, their interdependency is driven home by the obvious conclusion that suggests the nuclear holocaust, the ultimate tragedy for which Paulsen feels adults are totally responsible.
You know adults stink, we really do. We've polluted the earth, we've probably managed to destroy the human earth. And kids haven't done that. In that sense I think they are a lot smarter than we. I kind of wish I weren't an adult. (Senick, pp. 167-178)
Paulsen's other works, while not lacking appeal, do not match the high standards set down in these eleven novels. Still, throughout them are Paulsen's neo-Hemingway style, his Steinbeck characterization, and Melville themes that make him one of today's best young adult novelists. Paulsen's writing works because he creates books that show teen protagonists living life as a challenge -- a wonderful contrast to the spiritually deadening existences forced on all too many contemporary teens stuck in the mentally lifeless urban morass. Paulsen, like his talented contemporaries Paul Zindel, Robert Cormier, M. E. Kerr, and Cynthia Voigt, need not be confined to the adolescent literature genre. Despite some occasional problems with character development, Paulsen's ability to evoke powerful imagery and visualize life in both its comic and tragic forms places him alongside other craftsmen whose words will last.
James Schmitz is a teacher of English Language Arts at Hopi Junior/Senior High School on the Hopi Indian Reservation in Keams Canyon, Arizona.