Friday, May 14, 2010

Courier du bois

There must be some writerly glee that occurs when other books are compared to one's own as if yours had set the standard, i.e., in booktalking M.H. Herlong's The Great Wide Sea, I've been calling it Hatchet in a sailboat. Or Ben Mikaelsen's Touching Spirit Bear is like Hatchet only with Native Americans. But what does it mean when another one of your own books is compared in this way? Inevitably, I think, Gary Paulsen's Woods Runner will get the moniker Hatchet during the Revolutionary War. Is this a good thing? It's probably good when you're trying to sell a book to a kid who liked Hatchet, but is it fair to the author who has worked hard to tell an original story?

Fairness aside, Samuel Smith does bear a bit of a resemblance to Brian Robeson in his appreciation for nature (well, it takes Brian a little while to gain that appreciation) and his self-sufficiency. It's 1775, and Samuel lives with his parents in the deep woods of western Pennsylvania. His parents were seeking a less urban life, but they've not really adjusted to the rigors of the wilderness. Samuel, on the other hand, thrives. He knows the woods, he belongs there, he is the courier du bois. His expertise ensures that the few families in their tiny community are well-fed. One horrifying day, Samuel's world is destroyed as the British redcoats and their Iroquois allies storm into the small settlement and kill everyone; everyone but Samuel's parents, who are taken prisoner.

Samuel, using all his woodsman's skills, follows the soldiers, determined to free his parents. With the help of many folk he meets along the way, he gets all the way to New York City before he sees his parents again. And now that he's found them, he has to get them out.

Paulsen alternates the chapters telling Samuel's story with short, informational blurbs on all aspects of the Revolutionary War, i.e., weapons, Indian allies, American forces, disease, etc. In his author's note, Paulsen says that he "wanted the Revolutionary War to be seen in its reality." This war might have been about the high ideals of freedom and independence, but these came at a terrible cost. Paulsen doesn't shield us from its death and destruction -- scalped heads are described, as is an overflowing latrine bucket; a warm, familial dinner is quickly followed by a massacre.

A narrator new to me reads this book: Danny Campbell. He's quite good. His voice is kind of gravelly and hoarse -- as if he's spent too much time near a campfire, but it has a quiet authority and deliberateness that is pleasant to listen to. He changes his voice very slightly for different characters -- nothing dramatic, it's not difficult to track dialog. Once the suspense begins to build, Campbell picks up his pace to match, creating some exciting moments of tension.

When the book switches to the informational sections, Campbell adopts a slightly more neutral tone, but again it's extremely subtle. Following the change from fiction to nonfiction isn't a problem at all: the informational chapter headings are clear and Paulsen told us from the beginning that the book has this format.

Still, while I learned some interesting things, I don't care for this approach. It breaks up the story and I think I want an indication of where the author obtained his knowledge on the subject. Wouldn't it be nice if a young reader who got intrigued by something Paulsen says in the nonfiction portions had a clue about someplace to find out more about what fascinated him?

(Of course, my experience in chat reference today where a student needed "eight timeline events" in the life of some basketball player and refused to read the actual biography that I forwarded to him in order to find those events turned me cranky and cynical for the rest of the day. Today's students aren't interested in research and discovery, they want bullet points and timeline events laid out in bold face with flashing arrows that say "the answer is here," so they can quickly copy them and get back to texting, YouTube and online games. [I need a vacation ... which fortunately is happening in nine short days!])

So never mind, Mr. Paulsen. Your book is fine for young readers just the way it is!

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