Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Book Review: Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Lost Childhood by Gary Paulsen

The beloved and bestselling author of Hatchet has a new memoir out that explains a lot. Little Gary, almost still a toddler, was exploited by his young partying mom who would bring him to bars and get him to sing and dance as other patrons would then buy her drinks. It didn't pay the rent nor put food in Gary's mouth, so Gary's grandmother stepped in and got him shipped off to his aunt and uncle's. (The story of the five-year-old traveling by train alone--complete with a transfer!--across multiple states is a shocking tale that could NEVER happen now!)

His aunt and uncle are fantastic. They put him to work right away, but not song-and-dance work. He learns how to fish and how to clean and gut the fish. He learns how to feed the chickens and how to get water from the well, and he spends a lot of time outside, with animals and nature, learning homesteading skills. I wished he could have stayed with them forever, as that part of the book read like the best of the Little House books, but 60 years later. This, you could tell, was where he learned a lot of the skills that Brian later used in the Hatchet series of books. 

However, his parents show back up and take him back. His father has returned which isn't a great thing. They spend a couple of years in the Philippines where his parents drink and fight and he stays away as much as possible. They return to the US where his parents drink and fight more. Eventually Gary takes to basically camping out in the basement of their apartment building where there's an old lounge chair near the furnace. He does lots of odd jobs and occasionally steals for food. 

Just when he seems to be going completely off the rails with school, two things happen. He's introduced to a special program at school where if he comes every day, he can learn how to fix televisions (which are new and fascinating) and graduate early. And he goes into a library to get warm, and meets the best kind of librarian. He's worried she's going to kick him out or make him pay something or just be snotty and obnoxious, but she mostly leaves him alone, eventually starts recommending books for him to read, and one day she gives him his very first blank notebook, and the first new pencil he's ever owned. He starts writing and never looks back.

His childhood is pretty awful. I really hated his parents and wondered where CPS was (although I've heard equally awful stories about CPS care so maybe Gary did best by himself.) And it just goes to show how one person can have a massive influence on a child's life, even when what they did doesn't seem like much. Could that librarian have ever imagined that her pretty simple gift would lead to a Newbery Honor Medal? This is very readable and shows kids that they are hardy, resilient, and can go places despite not-great beginnings.

This book is published by Farrar Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

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