Gr 6-9Sarny, a child in Paulsen's Nightjohn (Doubleday, 1993), narrates the story of her life from girlhood until 1930, when she is 94 years old. Born into slavery and taught to read by the slave Nightjohn, she marries, bears two babies, and sees her husband worked to death. Her children are sold just as the Civil War ends. Accompanied by another freed slave, Sarny journeys toward New Orleans looking for her children, and meets Miss Laura, a light-skinned black woman with a shadowy occupation and lots of money. In New Orleans, Sarny finds her children and lives comfortably in Miss Laura's employ. She remarries, teaches black children to read, and sees her husband lynched. As the story ends, Sarny, a very rich woman, is living in Texas and waiting to die. Sarny's strong narrative voice is striking, as she remembers events in her own distinct way. It is as though readers are sitting at the feet of a real person, listening as her story spins out. Those unfamiliar with Nightjohn will not understand the numerous references to it, but this detracts little from the story. While Sarny suffers many terrible tragedies, her life after the war is probably far more comfortable and sheltered than the lives of the vast majority of former slaves. However, this is not meant to be a sweeping overview of history, but the highly individualized account of one woman's experiences. Just how much of the book is based on historical facts remains fuzzy, but Sarny is a wonderful, believable character. Her story makes absorbing reading.Bruce Anne Shook, Mendenhall Middle School, Greensboro, NC
Al Murphy ("Murphy's Stand" ) has a second chance at life. When he arrived in Turrett, New Mexico, he was broke, filthy, and aimless. But the affection of Christine McCormick provided a reason to live and the job of sheriff a means. When rancher Travis Price rides into town, barely alive, with an Apache arrow in him, Murphy fears the worst. His fears are confirmed when he finds Mrs. Price and two children murdered, apparently by Apache renegades. Murphy chases the Apaches, but matters are complicated when Price is murdered in the doctor's office, obviously not by Apaches. Murphy is arguably the most intriguing series character in current western fiction. What is developing here--this is the fifth Murphy novel--is a multivolume fictional biography of a man striving to make a meaningful life for himself in the Old West. Quality fiction by any standard.
Paulsen is best known for his young adult fiction, survival stories mainly. Now he tells one of his own. A young boy during World War II, Paulsen was seven before he met his father, who was off fighting. The intervening years were spent with his mother--a kind, good, but lonely woman who frequently sought the company of men, much to Paulsen's unease. Life changed radically for the boy when he and his mother joined his father in the Philippines. Everything was new: the surroundings, his family, even the air felt different. But the change was not necessarily for the better. Alcohol ran his parents' lives, and young Gary was left in the hands of servants. The male servant led him into danger, and the female servant introduced him to sex. Paulsen's writing style is elemental and matter-of-fact, and its simplicity draws readers in. The ingenuous tone is probably a necessity considering the horrors being described: a plane crashing into the ocean, its passengers providing a feast for the sharks; Paulsen's visit to a cave where "body rats" as big as dogs scurry over what used to be people. We take the author at his word as he chronicles this cavalcade of horrors, yet one aspect of his approach gives pause: he seems to remember every single thing that happened to him between the ages of four and nine. All writers, particularly autobiographers, must be allowed license where the nuances of memory are concerned, but Paulsen's seeming ability to recall even the smallest of details eventually becomes an intrusion, making us question where memory stops and imagination begins. Still, this is powerful stuff, a life story so vividly told that you feel like you've watched it happen, rather than just read about it.
In his introduction, Paulsen confesses that numerous inquiries about the germination of "Hatchet" (1987) became the seed of this book. Yet, as you read the graphic descriptions of hunting, camping, fishing, and the natural life of Paulsen's childhood in general, you realize that this seed has been in all of Paulsen's books, in all of Paulsen's life. The woods, the water, are the nurturing forces behind the man he has become. The most obvious correlation is the erstwhile boyhood summer camping trip, a fiasco in which five boys board one rickety boat with almost enough food and gear to swamp it. Far down the river, the boat hits a submerged log, sinking immediately, and the boys are left struggling for shore. Once on land, they are engulfed in mosquitoes and indecision. How do they get home? But all sections are vintage Paulsenthe seasonal fishing trips, each portion of the year highlighted by a different fish, from sucker and bull to rock bass and walleye; the low-key humor of the incidents of the missed shot and the South American foreign exchange student; and the sensitive grief over the killed duck and bow-and-arrow-slain doe. This book is obviously a feast for the outdoor loverthe hunter, fisher, or camperbut it will also draw those who love the beauty of the carefully crafted description, so detailed and vivid that the reader can feel the warming of spring days and taste the bullhead skin crackling and tasting of butter. Above all, "Father Water, Mother Woods" is the essence of Paulsen, the revelation of the author himself and why he writes as he does.
Lyrical and pleasing reflections on machinery, midlife crisis, and sundry other matters.
Not long ago Paulsen, a Newbury Honor author of books for children, as well as books for adults (Eastern Sun, Western Moon, 1993, etc.), turned 57 and discovered he had a heart ailment. He also discovered, he writes, that he is a man, in a time when it has become anachronistic to be masculine. To avert the horror of growing old, cuddly, and debilitated, Paulsen went out and bought a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, shopping for which turned out to be a challengefor a new bike, he learned, he'd have to pay a small fortune and then wait three years for delivery. Arming himself with a used machine, he took to the road, making his way from New Mexico to Alaska and back again, celebrating the freedom afforded him by the Harley-as-extension-of-self. The book that resulted from his trip is really a series of loosely connected essays. One treats the curious career of George Armstrong Custer, whom Paulsen seems intent on rehabilitating. Writing in a Hemingwayesque turn, he takes the line that, while it is politically incorrect to express respect for the doomed general, it is difficult not to admire his courage, and in the end it could be said that he was given his measure of famewhich is more than most men are given. Another essay explores the American worship of know-how, the almost religious aspect of being a mechanic that does not seem to exist in other countries. Still another deals with the myriad ways there are to meet one's maker on the back of a motorcycle, crushed by an errant piece of livestock or splattered by a road-hogging RV.
These meditations don't quite add up to a full-tilt memoir, but they make a nice entertainment all the same.