Thursday, June 24, 2010

Book Review: Woods Runner by Gary Paulsen (Random House, 2010)

Recommended for ages 10 and up.

How can anyone not be a fan of Gary Paulsen? He's written 175 incredibly diverse books, not to mention articles and short stories; probably his most famous book is the adventure story Hatchet, but he also excels at laugh-out-loud contemporary stories (have you read Lawn Boy?) and historical fiction, including the moving slavery story Nightjohn and the Tucket adventures. And of course he's won three Newbery honors and countless other awards for his books.

His newest book, Woods Runner, is set during on the Western frontier (in Pennsylvania) in 1776, seemingly far away from all the trouble brewing between the colonists and the British. Samuel, thirteen, lives with his parents and is a gifted outdoorsman, or "woods runner," spending his time hunting and trapping game in the wild forest that borders his home, providing fresh meat for nearly the whole settlement. It takes many days for news of far-away Lexington and Concord to reach them, and Samuel's father assumes the trouble their is just some local riot. After all, how could a "gaggle of farmers" be insane enough to fight the mighty British army?

When Samuel is off hunting, he spots smoke that appears to be from the direction of his home, eight miles away. Expert at reading the signs of nature, he realizes that it's not a forest fire he sees, but the smoke from a deliberate attack. Running all the way home, he finds a scene of unspeakable carnage. His neighbors," Paulsen writes, "shot down and hacked where they'd fallen. They did not look like they had been people. What he found seemed more like trash, paper, and cloth born across the ground." Miraculously, to him, he does not find the bodies of his parents. An experienced tracker, Samuel studies the tracks he finds, and soon begins following the trail of the killers in the hope that his parents have been taken prisoner and that he can somehow free them. Along the way he is joined by a small girl, Annie, who has been orphaned by the war, and the two of them head to New York, where the British are keeping most of the prisoners.

Paulsen does not shirk from describing the horrors of war and its effect on the civilian population as well as the soldiers. We see the British, the Native Americans, and the Hessian soldiers all commit acts of atrocity. Samuel himself feels like killing to avenge the atrocities he sees. Yet we also see kindness in the midst of wars, as strangers reach out to help Samuel, even nursing him back to health when he is savagely attacked.

In a departure from his other historical novels, Paulsen intersperses historical segments with the novel's narrative. These one to two page essays cover subjects ranging from communication to daily life on the frontier, firearms, details of warfare at the time of the Revolution, covert communication, and more. This method does interrupt the flow of the story, but readers can easily choose to ignore these sections, which are clearly marked, and treat them as if they were a sidebar. This type of information is more often included in an afterword or author's note but Paulsen explains in the beginning of the book that he chose this particular method to set Samuel's story against the larger context of the war, and also to provide details of what it was really like to live on the frontier at that time in history.

This is a fast-paced historical/adventure novel that is likely to appeal to young readers from about 5th grade on up. Because of its setting on the frontier, it provides an interesting perspective on the war that would make it a good companion book to a classic such as Esther Forbes' Johnny Tremain.

For additional books about the American Revolution for young people, you may want to refer to a recent post on Rebecca's Book Blog, in which she provides an excellent booklist of middle grade and young adult historical fiction set in this critical period of our history.


Anonymous said...

Great review! I remember hating Gary Paulsen's Hatchet when we read it in school, but your review has me convinced that I need to give Gary Paulsen another chance!

Fourth Musketeer said...

Thanks! He's an incredibly diverse writer--Avi is another one that writes in all different genres (and does them all well). Jane Yolen, too...