Saturday, December 26, 2020

Gone to the Woods

Paulsen, Gary. Gone to the Woods
January 12th 2021 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Byr)
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Told in the third person ("the boy") but clearly drawing from Paulsen's own life, Gone to the Woods is  akin to Pelzer's A Child Called "It" in its depiction of poor parenting. Born in 1939, Paulsen had to deal with a father who had gone to war and a mother who brought him to bars to sing, get bought drinks and snacks by men who wanted to get close to his mother, and a childhood full of neglect. At one point, he did go live with an aunt and uncle who were quietly and stoically caring, and he learned a love of the outdoors and also of learning things for himself from them. Sadly, he was taken from them and sent to be with his parents in the Philippines, where he saw the underbelly of life in Manila, and also witnessed atrocities of war. After the war, he lived in an apartment with his parents, who were usually drunk, fighting, and not caring for his needs at all. He lived primarily in the basement, doing odd jobs at bars and bowling alleys, and selling some game. He took refuge in the woods as well as the public library, where a kind librarian saw potential in him. She signed him up for a card and recommended books to him. He quickly took to loving reading, and this helped him make it through high school despite the work it took just to survive. Before his senior year, he got into trouble, but was given the option of vocational training. He trained to be a television repair man, and this put him in a good place when he joined the army. Basic training was difficult, but set him on a path out of the crushing poverty and abuse he had experienced. 
Strengths: Paulsen is an excellent writer, and his descriptions of food and the outdoors are especially vivid and poignant. I definitely rooted for "the boy" and was glad when he was with his aunt and uncle and experienced some love. The fact that young children were left to their own devices and had to care for themselves during the first half of the twentieth century will be novel to modern readers, and this is definitely a book that will make the readers' lives seem much easier. This read a bit like a middle grade version of Hemingway in its forthright manner and constant movement. Just replace the ubiquitous alcoholic beverages in Hemingway with greasy food. Only Paulsen can make salted lard sound tasty. 
Weaknesses: I wish that there had been more information on Paulsen's life-- this ended rather abruptly after his experiences in the army. Children in similar circumstances would benefit from more "it gets better" information. If there hadn't been a brief description of the fact that Paulsen is 80 and has done many things with his life, I would suspect a volume two in the works. I also wish that there had been a brief description of his life with his grandmother, although that has an entire book devoted to it, The Cookcamp (1991).
What I really think: We do a unit on Paulsen in the 7th grade, so I will probably buy this, even though it was a crushingly depressing read. I am sorry that Paulsen, and many other children, must live this way because their parents can't take care of them, but glad he was able to overcome his childhood. 

Ms. Yingling


  1. Do you think it's ok for Elementary? I have all my Gary Paulsen in juvenile, and was planning to stick this there just for continuity... I have Hatchet there too.

  2. I don't now remember anything really objectionable-- language or descriptive sex are something I usually note. It was just super sad. You could probably keep it in elementary. My public library is adding it to the juvenile section.