Memoirs of a survivor

3rd May 1996 at 01:00
Wild backwoodsman Gary Paulsen tells Geraldine Brennan about his lonesome trail

The Gary Paulsen legends have become part of the North American folk tale tradition. In the United States he's up there with Rip van Winkle and Davy Crockett, except that more 11-year-old boys are likely to have heard of him.

His tales are many: how his parents were quarrelsome drunks; how he ran away to the woods at 12 and taught himself to live off the land; how the public librarian in his small town in Minnesota saved him from ignorance with a diet of Zane Grey and Dickens; how he was a friendless nerd at school but grew up to sail across the Pacific and drive a dog team more than 1,000 miles across Alaska; how he's just a regular guy - a 57-year-old grandfather taken aback at his own success.

They lost nothing in the retelling on his recent trip to London. Stories of wild beasts, frozen extremities and troubled childhood poured out as Paulsen's energy burned a hole in the hotel sofa (he had to give up the dog-racing because of a heart complaint, but has managed to avoid surgery with a fat-free diet and hopes to sail round Cape Horn later this year).

Like his novels, Hatchet and Hatchet: Winter, published in the UK this year, his live performance is all riveting, "and-then-I-saw-the-bear" stuff. Reports that he's a showstopper in schools, libraries and bookshops ring true.

His autobiography Eastern Sun, Winter Moon, published this month, fills out his pre-teen years. The young Gary learned his first escape techniques in the Philippines, where his father was posted by the US Army after World War Two. Frustrated by expat protocol, he would sneak out of the compound to ride water buffalo and get lost in the jungle.

The latest chapter in the legend of the wild woodsman is his instant following among inner-city children in Britain, who are unlikely to encounter wilderness of the unforgiving kind that Paulsen describes in the Hatchet stories about Brian, a 13-year-old townie stranded in the north Canadian forest.

"I know very streetwise kids from tough areas of Chicago who completely understand Hatchet, but at least they know where the wilderness is. That's not the case in England, but they still can't get enough," he said.

"I think it's simply that young teenagers are ripe for adventure. When you're 13 you haven't had time to get bogged down in habits and anything can happen. Kids today could go and do what I did or what Brian did.

"Girls as well - I got the idea for Hatchet from a true story about two girls but I made Brian a boy because I didn't think I could write about girls. I was getting 200 letters a day about those books - half were from girls."

It's possible that the stern back-country morality in many of Paulsen's tales - waste not, want not; learn from your mistakes; do not be complacent; watch what is going on around you or you will freezestarvebe eaten by mosquitoes or something bigger - applies equally to the mean streets.

Also, the stories are gripping enough to lure reluctant readers without a hint of remedial concessions about them. Paulsen is particularly good at charting the painful learning process experienced by young teenage boys out of their depth. Most of his heroes are loners under 16 from relatively sheltered but unhappy homes, faced with initially overwhelming challenges in alien environments.

"They all make mistakes, as I did. It took me a long time to learn to shoot. I never actually shot myself, but I didn't hit anything else for a while. " He has given up hunting - "I realised that I couldn't shoot one of my dogs, and by extension I couldn't shoot anything else" - and explores the ethical dilemma of killing to stay alive in Hatchet: Winter (see review: right) and the human-animal bond in many books including his second novel Mr Tucket, a tale of the Oregon Trail now available here, and Dogsong, about an Inuit boy who discovers his heritage through dog-racing, not yet published here.

In the US, he is about to publish his sequel to Nightjohn, a moving treatment of Black American slavery linked to the early life of Sally Hemmings, a slave in Thomas Jefferson's household. Nightjohn, about to be released on film by Disney, is one successful example of Paulsen using a female voice and the achievement he is most proud of. "Hatchet has the biggest following but it was important to me to tell some of that history," he says, all set to explore another part of the wood.

Mr Tuckett is published by Hodder Signature. Other Gary Paulsen novels including Hatchet, Hatchet: Winter and Nightjohn are published by Macmillan. Winterdance is published by Indigo. Eastern Sun, Winter Moon is published by Gollancz.

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