Gary Paulsen’s Actual-Life Survival Information
GONE TO THE WOODS
Surviving a lost childhood
By Gary Paulsen
The authors’ childhood experiences – no matter how joyful or disturbing – often form the basis of their fiction. Gary Paulsen’s name is synonymous with gritty survival stories, so it should come as no surprise that you grit your teeth and clutch the pages in his memoir, Gone to the Woods. Paulsen, who won the American Library Association’s prestigious Margaret A. Edwards Award for his enduring contribution to young adult literature, introduces us to his life story, where readers are quick to make connections to events in his novels, especially his Newbery -Honor “hatchet.”
Paulsen calls himself “the boy” throughout. There’s only one moment when a character calls him “Gary”. While the boy spends most of the book escaping unfathomable trauma, “thought images” remain seared in his psyche. Memoir writing is a difficult endeavor, and I can only speculate that Paulsen chose this third-person device – which sometimes kept me in check – as a form of self-care.
That is not to say that the book lacks beautiful language or stunning details. Still lost in history, I was looking for the 5 year old boy who gets on a train alone in Chicago and travels 400 miles to Minneapolis, surrounded by wounded soldiers returning from WWII where his absent father (den he doesn’t want to) meet until he’s 7) served as an officer general under General Patton. In Minneapolis, he gets on another train to travel hundreds of kilometers – all to escape an alcoholic, irresponsible mother. (She put him in a uniform and dragged him to bars, where she put him on table tops to draw men to her by singing songs.) The boy’s scandalized maternal grandmother insists that he and Aunt Edy, his mother’s younger sister and husband Sig goes live in Minnesota’s North Woods.
Paulsen describes her homestead as “a fairytale farm”. Here the boy learns to work and survive outside the country and immerses himself in the wonders of childhood. Even in these sublime moments, my heart raced because I knew that while authors make fairy tales, they don’t always live because that’s not how life works.
My heart broke like Sig’s when the boy’s mother shows up unannounced with a man she calls “Uncle Casey” to take him away, first by train to California and then “across the ocean to meet your father.” Place called “The” to be Filipino Islands. ”(“ The man named Casey … wasn’t the boy’s uncle and would never be his uncle. ”)
So many horrors strike this boy as he moves through his childhood and adolescence. While traveling by boat to the Philippines, he witnessed a plane crash, followed by a shark attack on the passengers who were pushed into the water. While in Manila, he hears heavy artillery being fired every night and witnesses brutal murders. In North Dakota, where his usually drunk, struggling parents end up next, he runs away repeatedly before joining the army. These events haunted me as a reader, so I cannot imagine how the author saw them with my own eyes.
Aunt Edy and Sig’s lessons help him survive or at least strengthen him until he steps into the secure physical space of a public library at age 13, where a librarian picks up a notebook and a sharpened pencil and uses it to write down encourages his “thought images”. This little act has been repeated throughout his life and enriched the lives of readers for generations.