Gary Paulsen: Novelist who inspired children to love the wilderness

The author’s most famous book, ‘Hatchet’, drew on his own adventures as a restless outdoorsman

Harrison Smith
Wednesday 20 October 2021 00:01
<p>Paulsen sits with his favourite Alaskan husky, Flax, at his Willow, Alaska, home in 2005</p>

Paulsen sits with his favourite Alaskan husky, Flax, at his Willow, Alaska, home in 2005

Gary Paulsen, who inspired generations of young readers with novels about the beauty, wonder and danger of the wilderness – most notably Hatchet, about a boy who learns to survive on his own in the Canadian bush – while drawing on his own adventures as a sled-dog racer and restless outdoorsman, has died aged 82.

Paulsen had lived on a 200-acre ranch in White Oaks, a former ghost town near the Jicarilla Mountains, and treasured his solitude, saying he could only think clearly when he was far from society.

But even as he moved between New Mexico and Alaska, training sled dogs for the annual Iditarod trail race, he received hundreds of letters a day, forwarded by his publisher from fans across the country. Like the works of Beverly Cleary or Judy Blume, his novels had a special hold on many young readers, including boys who – like Paulsen – once had little interest in going to the library.

“If I have a kid who’s a reluctant reader, all I have to do is hand him one of Gary Paulsen’s books,” Teri Lesesne, an authority on young-adult literature who taught at Sam Houston State University in Texas, told The New York Times in 2006. “It’ll change his life.”

Paulsen was wildly prolific, describing himself as “totally, viciously, obsessively committed to work”. He wrote more than 200 books that collectively sold more than 35 million copies, and was honoured for his contributions to young-adult literature with the American Library Association’s 1997 Margaret A Edwards Award.

Three of his novels were named Newbery Honour Books: Dogsong (1985), about an Inuit boy who embarks on a journey of self-discovery with a team of sled dogs; The Winter Room (1989), about life on a Minnesota farm; and Hatchet (1987), which inspired four sequels and helped turned Paulsen into a YA superstar.

Praising the novel’s “powerful writing” in a review for the Los Angeles Times, author Frances Ward Weller wrote that Paulsen “varies tone and tempo by combining spare, laconic lines of monosyllables with long word-weavings that have the refrains and rhythms of villanelles and the sense of a ruminating mind”.

The novel told the story of Brian Robeson, a 13-year-old child of divorce who takes a bush plane to northern Canada to visit his father, only to crash land into a lake after the pilot has a heart attack. Forced to rely on his wits and a hatchet, a gift from his mother, he grapples with clouds of mosquitoes, an angry moose, a tornado and abiding loneliness, but teaches himself how to hunt and start a fire before being rescued after two months.

Parts of Hatchet were inspired by Paulsen’s own life, including a violent encounter with a moose, which kicked some of his teeth in. In the introduction to the novel’s 20th-anniversary edition, he recalled writing the book around the same time he began running sled dogs in Minnesota, scribbling down lines while sitting around a campfire. He said he tried to write the same way his dogs ran: “Quick, deliberate, stark, simple, pure.”

Unlike adults, Paulsen said, young readers were ‘still open to new ideas’

Paulsen had found refuge in the outdoors ever since he was a boy in rural Minnesota, left to fend for himself by alcoholic parents. “Whenever I went into the woods,” he said, “all the hassles of life were very quickly forgotten.”

He later sailed to Fiji, worked as a trapper, rode a Harley from El Paso to Fairbanks, Alaska, and ran the Iditarod three times, finishing 41st as a rookie in 1983. The 938-mile race took him 17-and-a-half days to complete, an experience that he chronicled in his memoir Winterdance (1994), which was adapted into the Disney movie Snow Dogs (2002) with Cuba Gooding Jr.

“I know many mushers – myself included – who first fell in love with mushing through Gary Paulsen’s stories about his sled dogs,” writer and dogsledder Blair Braverman tweeted after the author’s death.

Although Paulsen was best known for books set in the far north, he also wrote novels such as Nightjohn (1993), about an enslaved African American girl who defies plantation rules by learning to read; Mr Tucket (1969), the first in a five-volume western series about a boy captured by Native Americans on the Oregon Trail; and The Car (1993), which followed a 14-year-old who befriends a pair of Vietnam veterans after being abandoned by his parents.

“I’m a teller of stories,” Paulsen told The New York Times in 2006. “I put bloody skins on my back and dance around the fire, and I say what the hunt was like. It’s not erudite; it’s not intellectual. I sail, run dogs, ride horses, play professional poker and tell stories about the stuff I’ve been through. And I’m still a romantic; I still want Bambi to make it out of the fire.”

Gary James Paulsen was born in Minneapolis on 17 May 1939 and grew up in Thief River Falls, Minnesota. His father fought in Europe during the Second World War; Paulsen was seven when they met for the first time.

“My folks were the town drunks,” he told The New York Times. “We lived in this grubby apartment building. My parents were brutal to each other, so I slept in the basement by an old coal-fired furnace.” At times he stayed with aunts and uncles or simply took to the woods.

But at age 13, he saw the bright lights of the local library and went inside to warm up. He left with his first library card, a liberating gift from a librarian who encouraged him to read and soon handed him a freshly sharpened pencil, telling him to write down his “mind pictures”. “It was as though I had been dying of thirst and the librarian had handed me a five-gallon bucket of water,” he later said. “I drank and drank.”

Paulsen read obsessively, averaging two books a week during the summer. But he remained a fitful student and at age 17 forged his father’s signature to join the army, leading to a stint testing missiles in the New Mexico desert.

Over the next few years he crisscrossed the country, holding down jobs as a satellite technician, construction worker, ranch hand, truck driver and men’s magazine editor. By one account, he helped write film and TV dialogue in Hollywood before leaving in 1966, moving to a cabin in Minnesota to write books.

Paulsen published his first book that year, The Special War, a work of nonfiction based on interviews with Vietnam veterans. He struggled with alcoholism but said he got sober in 1973, and wrote occasionally for adults until the mid-1990s, when he decided to dedicate himself entirely to children’s literature.

Unlike adults, he said, young readers were “still open to new ideas”.

Paulsen’s first two marriages ended in divorce. In 1971 he married Ruth Wright, an artist who illustrated several of his books. He had two children from his first marriage, Lynn and Lance, and a son from his third, Jim. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.

“It was and still is a wonder to me how writers and readers meet in the pages of a book, how books come from a part of the writer and become part of the reader,” he wrote in the 20th-anniversary introduction for Hatchet.

“But the force behind it, the thing that pushes me to write, that awakens me at night with story ideas, that causes my breath to stop and hold with a sentence that comes out right, and that makes coming to the computer or the pad of paper with a cup of tea every morning an experience filled with the feeling of wonderful newness and expectation, the engine that drives me to write is, surely, love.”

Gary Paulsen, writer, born 17 May 1939, died 13 October 2021

© The Washington Post

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