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A prolific author of juvenile fiction, Gary Paulsen is known for his coming-of age stories, including three winners of the Newbery Honor: Dogsong (1985), Hatchet (1987), and The Winter Room (1989).
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing Up as an Army Brat
Gary Paulsen was born on May 17, 1939, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Since his father was stationed in England during World War II and his mother worked long hours in a factory, Paulsen’s primary caregivers during his early years were his grandmother and a few aunts. At the end of World War II, Paulsen and his family moved overseas to the Philippines. The next few years, from 1946 until 1949, were marked by frequent moves and the instability caused by his mother and father’s alcoholism.
A self-described ‘army brat,’ Paulsen grew up as a shy boy who remained miserable until he discovered the world of literature. Paulsen told Marguerite Feitlowitz in an interview that, ”School was a nightmare because I was unbelievably shy, and terrible at sports. I had no friends, and teachers ridiculed me … One day as I was walking past the public library in twenty below temperatures . . . I went in to get warm and to my absolute astonishment the librarian . . . asked me if I wanted a library card. . . . When she handed me the card, she handed me the world.” Although his library card did little to change his less-than-dedicated attitude toward school, Paulsen did develop a passion for reading and spent countless hours reading alone in the basement of his apartment building.
Eclectic Experiences as an Adolescent
Paulsen ran away from home at the age of fourteen and traveled with a carnival, experiences which piqued his interest in adventure. Paulsen frequently draws from this period in his life for the thematic content of his fiction. Alone in the world, Paulsen worked at a variety of jobs in order to support himself. His experiences during this time included working on a farm and jobs as an engineer, construction worker, ranch hand, truck driver, and sailor.
Move to Minnesota Proves Conducive to Writing
After abruptly leaving his job at an aerospace firm in California, where he worked as a satellite technician, Paulsen made a decision to work as a magazine proofreader in Hollywood while simultaneously working on his own writing at night. After a year, he moved to Minnesota and rented a cabin on a lake, where he completed his first novel, Special War (1966).
Racing the Iditarod
While living in rural Minnesota, Paulsen became interested in the sport of dog-sled racing and eventually picked it up himself. After training up to twenty hours a day, Paulsen entered the 1983 Iditarod, a 1,180-mile Alaskan dog-sled race. In 1985, after a second run of the same race, Paulsen suffered an attack of angina, a painful tightness in his chest, which forced him to give up his dogs and direct his concentrated efforts elsewhere. It was at this time that Paulsen began to focus more seriously on writing. ”I write because it’s all I can do,” Paulsen once reflected. ”Every time I’ve tried to do something else, I cannot.” The author continues to write—even though the task is often daunting to him—because he wants his ”years on this ball of earth to mean something. Writing furnishes a way for that to happen. . . . It pleases me to write—in a very literal sense of the word.”
Coming Full Circle
Since his first publication in 1966, Paulsen has written more than two hundred novels for children and young adults as well as numerous magazine articles, short stories, plays, and nonfiction books. Of these, several have been recognized by the literary community, earning awards for their artistic merit. Perhaps most significantly, three of his novels, Dogsong, Hatchet, and The Winter Room were recognized with the Newbery Honor, the runner-up prize for the Newbery Award. In addition, The Haymeadow (1994) was awarded the Western Writers of America Golden Spurs Award. ”It’s like things have come full circle,” Paulsen reflected in an AAYA interview. ”I felt like nothing the first time I walked into a library, and now library associations are giving me awards. It means a lot to me.”
Paulsen’s own colorful life was the basis for his autobiographical book entitled Eastern Sun, Winter Moon: An Autobiographical Odyssey (1993). In it, Paulsen chronicles a journey he took by car across the country to meet his long-absent father, his family’s unsettling life in the Philippines, and the break-up of his parents’s marriage.
Paulsen and his wife, Ruth Wright Paulsen, divide their time between their home in New Mexico and a boat in the Pacific. His novel Lawn Boy (2007) was selected for the 2008 New Mexico Book Award.
Works in Literary Context
Paulsen is a prolific author of coming-of-age stories and has published hundreds of novels, many of which include wilderness settings. In addition, he has also written non-fiction works on topics including hunting, trapping, farming, animals, medicine, and outdoor life. His experiences growing up with his grandmother and aunts as strong female role models is reflected in a collection of stories lauding women for their ability to handle so much responsibility and adversity with equanimity.
Coming-of-Age in the Wilderness
Many of Paulsen’s books combine an outdoors theme with the story of a boy’s coming-of-age. For example, in Tracker (1984), the thirteen-year-old protagonist learns to hunt and come to terms with the death of his grandfather, simultaneously. Similarly, Dogsong (1985) concerns a fourteen-year-old Eskimo who races a dog team across Alaska. Along the way, he encounters a pregnant girl who suffers from exposure to the cold. Themes of growing up and survival are also present in one of Paulsen’s most famous books, Hatchet. In it, Brian, who is struggling to deal with his parent’s divorce, is the only survivor of a plane crash in the Canadian wilderness and must overcome his worries in order to survive.
Works in Critical Context
While many of his books are no longer in print, Paulsen is well respected within the literary community as one of the most significant writers of young adult fiction. Critics often point to Paulsen’s sensitive treatment of adolescent concerns. ”There is poetic majesty in the descriptions without a touch of condescension to the young,” writes Eugene J. Lineham in Best Sellers. Of all of his works, one of his earlier novels, Hatchet, has received the most critical praise.
Reviewing Hatchet in Voice of Youth Advocates, Eve Wilson states, ”Paulsen’s knowledge of our national wilderness is obvious and beautifully shared. Beyond that Paulsen grips Brian (and the reader) by the throat, shaking him into enlightenment and self-confidence after having endured several life-threatening events.” Margery Fisher’s assessment, in Growing Point, is equally positive: ”The theme has been used before, most notably by Ivan South-all, but the book stands well on its own for firm concrete detail and an equally firm pattern of the boy’s moods and
reactions to danger.” Audrey Laski, in The School Librarian, has a similar reaction to the way the protagonist is depicted: ”The passionate, repetitive rhythms of the writing, though sometimes a little overdone, powerfully communicate his terrors and triumphs.”
The success of the novel involved more than just earning positive reviews. When it was published in 1987, ”something extraordinary happened,” writes Sarah L. Thomson in her biography, GaryPaulsen (2003). ”Hatchet was more than a critical and popular success. It was a phenomenon.” Anita Silvey has judged the book to be ”the best modern survival story for young readers.” Speaking to the novel’s believability, Silvey notes that it ”leaves readers feeling as if they have been living alone in the wilderness.” Perhaps this explains the flurry of letters Paulsen has received asking him what happened to Brian, the novel’s protagonist, after his rescue. Commenting on Paulsen’s popularity with young readers, James B. Blasingame asserts that ”without a doubt, Hatchet … is one ofthe most widely read young adult novels in the world today.”
- Blasingame, James. Gary Paulsen. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2007.
- Feitlowitz, Marguerite. ”Interview with Gary Paulsen.” Authors and Artists for Young Adults Vol. 2, Detroit, Mich: Gale, 1989, pp. 165-73.
- Fine, Edith Hope. Gary Paulsen: Author and Wilderness Adventurer. New York: Enslow, 2000.
- Macken, Joann Early. Gary Paulsen: Voice of Adventure and Survival. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow Publishers, 2006.
- Salvner, Gary M. Presenting Gary Paulsen. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996.
- Thomson, Sarah L. Gary Paulsen. New York: Rosen Central, 2003.
- Campbell, Patty. Review of The Cookcamp. New York Times Book Review (May 5, 1991): 22-23.
- Fisher, Margery. Review of Hatchet. Growing Point Vol. 28, No. 4 (November 1989): 52, 34-39.
- Laski, Audrey. Review of Hatchet. The School Librarian Vol. 37, No. 4 (November 1989): 161, 163.
- Linehan, Eugene J. Review of Dogsong. Best Sellers (July 1985).
- Rausch, Tim. Review of The Car. School Library Journal (May 1994): 131-32.
- Sapia, Yvonne. ”Sisters in Search of America.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (February 27, 1994): 2, 13.
- Wilson, Evie. Review of Hatchet. Voice of Youth Advocates Vol. 10, No. 6 (February 1988): 283.
- Winton, Tim. ”His Own World War.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (March 21, 1993): 1, 11.
- Gary Paulsen. Retrieved November 29, 2008, from http://www.randomhouse.com/features/garypaulsen.
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