By Ekta R. Garg
January 20, 2021
Genre: Children’s nonfiction
Release date: January 12, 2021
Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars
After writing dozens of novels for young people, acclaimed author Gary Paulsen turns his literary talents to examine his own life. Through the course of a difficult childhood and teen years, he discovers a key trait—the ability to survive, no matter the circumstances—as evidenced in the adventure books he wrote later. While readers get many answers, they’re also left with questions. Paulsen shares in exquisite prose some of his most painful memories but doesn’t do them full justice in his memoir Gone to the Woods.
At the age of 5, Gary Paulsen finds himself on a train from Chicago, alone, to go live with his aunt and uncle in Minnesota. While he pines for his mother, he’s already come to understand that a life singing on tables in bars isn’t normal. He has learned a few choice swear words, however, and also how to tolerate the gentlemen callers his mother entertains. Although the train trip is harrowing for a small child, it also takes him to where he’ll experience some of the happiest times of his life.
Paulsen moves in with his Aunt Edy and Uncle Sig. They teach him the ways of their farm and the land. Paulsen finds himself cemented to nature; its beauty and its ways mystify him and pacify him in a way nothing else can.
Despite his utter contentment living with Edy and Sig, Paulsen’s mother eventually comes for him. They endure a long boat ride across the Pacific Ocean to join his father in the Philippines on the base in Manila. All Paulsen knows up to this point is that his mother worked in an ammunition factory and his father fought in the war. His initial trepidation gives way to a small kernel of hope. He’s leaving the land he loves, but perhaps he and his parents can become a family.
Unfortunately, his parents don’t have time to spare from all the fighting and drinking they’re doing. Eventually, when they return to the States, Paulsen begins his “rinse-and-repeat” pattern of running away and supporting himself with odd jobs. Authorities find him every time and bring him back home where he’s forced to scrounge for food and money until he gets restless and runs again.
On a cold winter day, Paulsen enters a library as much to warm himself up as to escape the latest group of bullies. He’s always been a slow reader and never had an interest in books, but a librarian takes notice of him. Her kind manner encourages Paulsen to come back and, eventually, to get a library card. Suspicious at first that she’s trying to con him into going back to school, Paulsen soon becomes the librarian’s biggest fan as she gently suggests fiction and nonfiction works that remind him of his childhood. A stint in the military leads to more eye-opening experiences, but Paulsen never forgets the fire burning in him for the world of stories.
Paulsen recounts the earlier years of his childhood in detail, which will draw readers in and leave them sympathizing with him. Unfortunately, as the memoir proceeds through his early and then late teen years it begins to condense various time periods to the detriment of the overall story. By the end the narrative skips several decades until the last lines, written no doubt with the intent of flourish but instead leaving readers confused.
Several questions may come to mind as readers go through this memoir: Did he ever go back to that librarian and share his published works? If Paulsen loved the land and his aunt and uncle so much, why didn’t he go back to them after his family returned to the U.S.? He was already bent on running away from home; why not run to a place and to people who loved him so much?
Interviews independent of the memoir reveal that Paulsen did, indeed, spend much of his teen years with other family members, but this is never addressed in the book. Also, several of his life experiences that would have made for compelling reading don’t make it into this tome. Aimed at middle grade readers, it seems strange that Paulsen would leave out some of those events, like competing in the Iditarod, that his target audience loves in his fiction works.
Given the beauty of the prose, diehard fans of Paulsen will probably enjoy this. Others may want to consider giving it a miss. I recommend readers Borrow Gone to the Woods.