As a middle school librarian, my collection includes at least one copy of every Gary Paulsen book; from The Island to My Life in Dog Years, we’ve got them all. Rarely does a week go by that I don’t recommend one of Paulsen’s books to a student looking for an adventure, and I always have satisfied customers. But I have a confession to make. For all the Paulsen books I’ve circulated, I’ve never read a single one. At least I hadn’t until yesterday, when, while shelving books, I decided it was high time I cracked open one of his books and gave it a once over.
The protagonist, Samuel, and his family are blissfully living the rugged frontier life in western Pennsylvania until everything changes in a single day. While Samuel is out hunting in the woods he sees thick black smoke coming from his family’s settlement. By the time he travels the miles back to his home he finds everything burnt to the ground, friends and neighbors shot and scalped and his family missing. Using his tracking skills and woods-sense he determines his parents have been taken prisoner by an invading troop of Iroquois and British soldiers and sets out to find them. On his way he encounters his share of those looking to hurt him and those looking to help.
In contrast to most historical fiction where historical knowledge is interspersed with the narrative (including Paulsen’s own, as he writes in the Author’s Note), each chapter of Woods Runner begins with a brief non-fiction section focused on a specific aspect of Revolutionary life (and death) before returning to the story. I wasn’t used to this format, but I found that I rather enjoyed how the non-fiction pieces provided a scaffold for understanding the coming chapter. While I found this helpful, my complaint would be the absence of even a single bibliographic reference. I trust Mr. Paulsen did his research, and it’s likely that he’s done so much that his knowledge of the topic on which he writes is so deeply ingrained that he’s no longer sure where he learned it, but if Eric Foner can cite where he finds his information, I think Paulsen should as well.
My other small quibble was with Paulsen’s confusion of hay and straw. In the book, a farmer invites Samuel and his friends to sleep on a bed of hay and hay bales. Hay is what horses eat. It’s brown, damp and kind of stinky. Nobody would want to sleep on hay. Straw, however, is a different story. Straw is made from dried plant stalks and is commonly used for animal bedding. It’s an honest mistake, and one I’ve made myself in the past*, but it’s a careless mistake, and one that pulled me away from the action of the story. I’m not sure it would have the same effect on a twelve-year-old who was reading the book, but it was a sticking point for me.
These two issues aside, I thoroughly enjoyed my first foray into the works of Gary Paulsen. The characters voices and descriptions of weapons and hunting felt authentic to the time period, providing an access point for history lovers. Short chapters that tied off as the action sequence concluded made the book accessible to more reluctant readers. An engaging story with enemies and danger at every turn satisfies the need for adventure. And for those needing something a bit more sentimental, the brother-sister relationship and family reunion do the trick. With its appeal to a variety of audiences, this would be a solid choice for a grade-wide required reading.
Woods Runner by Gary Paulsen
Wendy Lamb Books, 2010
Recommended for: Grades 5-8
*A mistake that I stopped making after my husband, who does political advance, did a town hall event in a barn in Iowa and requested (and received) hay to use in the stage design. A smelly error, indeed. Thankfully, they were able to switch out the hay for straw and everything worked out.The LibrariYAn is an Amazon Associate. If you click from links on this blog to Amazon and buy something (anything!), I receive a small percentage of the purchase price.