“New Mexico author Gary Paulsen’s new book, “Gone to the Woods,” is the story in novel form of Paulsen’s own boyhood. He opens with a long journey north he undertakes alone as a boy of five. Wearing a tag pinned to his jacket in Chicago by his hard-drinking mother, he rides a train filled with war-wounded WW II soldiers heading home.
His mother has sent him without food, but here and there someone shares something. He’s so small he gets stuck in the toilet, unable to get out until another passenger needs it and helps him. As the train travels through dense woods past a lake, he sees a wonderful bear looking at the train, and it helps him pass the long hours making up stories about the bear and its life next to the train track. (The opposing forces of danger and beauty in nature are a recurring theme in Paulsen’s writing.)
Finally, young Gary’s journey ends somewhere in northern Minnesota, finishing as abruptly as it began. The train conductor tells him to wait on the platform for someone to pick him up.
As the train leaves, a cranky rural mailman comes for him. After a long, bumpy ride, this man, too, tells him the trip is over, and he will have to hike a track through the woods the rest of the way. “Or don’t. You can wait here until they come to check the mail, but they don’t come every day. You might have to spend the night.” It doesn’t seem good to stay by himself, so he hikes into the woods as the mailman’s rickety car rattles away down the road. The story acquires a fairy-tale feel at this point—will he meet a big, bad wolf or a pack of robbers?
After confronting an unfriendly flock of geese and a large dog along the way, suddenly he sees a person—a woman wearing overalls and a straw hat. “Why, Lord, little peanut, where on earth did you come from?” She hugs him! It’s his aunt Edy, his mother’s sister.
Uncle Sig (short for Sigurd) and Aunt Edy welcome him to their farm and even provide an attic bedroom just for him—his very first bedroom. (He tries to forget the times he hid under the kitchen table in the single room apartment where he lived with his mother.) Young Gary blossoms and learns how to fish, how to tend a garden, how to gather eggs and morels, and how to help with the cows, pigs, hens, geese, and horses. Each day brings new experiences and he comes to love the northern woods and the farm; he knows he is where he belongs. This idyllic section of the book is a sharp contrast to what is about to come.
One day his mother comes to get him—with a new “uncle” in tow–and life takes a bad turn as he now lives with not one but two alcoholic adults. He runs away multiple times. Going into the woods remains one of his favorite refuges, but he also discovers that the public library is a safe place to be, and begins healing through reading and, eventually, writing. Readers will also have a brief glimpse at his Army service and reflections on his writing career.
Paulsen’s first-person narrative is so firmly grounded in places and senses readers will feel as if they are living through his experiences, too. Paulsen, now in his 80s, is the author of many award-winning books for middle grade and teen readers, which you can borrow at Carlsbad Public Library.