Book Review: My Side of the Mountain

Illustration from the book: Sam Gribley and his falcon, Frightful. And his homemade shirt with extra large pockets.

Naturalist and author Jean Craigshead George wrote My Side of the Mountain–the story of a boy from New York City who runs away to live on his own in the Catskill Mountains–in 1959.  Since then, it has won the Newbery Medal and been consistently ranked high in recommended reading lists for children. Recently I re-read My Side for the first time in many, many years. I suspect that many Root Simple readers will be familiar with this book, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

I’d rank this book as one of the most influential in my life. I read it in elementary school, and it burned its messages into my already-receptive neural pathways. My earliest memories are set in the Colorado Rockies–because that is where I lived when I was very young. By the time I was old enough to read My Side of the Mountain we’d moved on to Californian suburbs, but my early experience of the mountains made it seem quite reasonable to me not only that the main character, Sam, should be able to live on his own in the wilderness, but also that once I got a little older maybe I could do the same thing, too.

From an adult perspective, I can see why this book enchanted me as a child. George has a keen eye for nature, especially animals, and a deft hand with description. The basic fantasy of running away and living in a tree with animal friends was irresistible to me as a child, and still has strong appeal for me an adult. (I’d allow Mr. Homegrown to visit on holidays, provided he helps me pot up jam for the winter.)

Of course, it is a crazy fantasy–no child’s family would just let him go live in the woods for a year by himself–and some critics complain about this aspect of the book being so unbelievable that it somehow negates the rest of the book. To that I’d say that although this book is full of specific, realistic detail, it is a fantasy. The point is not so much whether or not anyone would allow Sam to run away for that long. The point is that if he could run away, he could live alone. It’s that could which is important to the child. I could do that. I could do that if I ever wanted to. I could do that next year. I could do that when I grow up. It can be done. And this knowledge, empowering as it is, is delicately tempered with Sam’s realization that as much as he loves the wild, he also craves human company, and will have to learn to balance the two needs as he gets older.

The fact that Sam’s voice is that of a well-educated, middle-aged female naturalist raised in the first half of the 20th century (another frequent criticism) was no problem for me whatsoever as a child. Sam’s maturity and the advanced vocabulary was just part of the flavor of the book. I learned new words from him. And anyway, for all I knew, that was how kids from New York spoke.

The book is illustrated with scout-guide type drawings by the author which made Sam’s survival technologies seem all the more possible, and more important, replicable, should I ever manage to run away to the wilderness. Today I look at those illustrations and recognize my early indoctrination to how-to and survival manuals.

What struck me most on this re-read is the way Sam learns. He comes up against tough problems, tries various solutions, and most often fails on the first two or three attempts. He makes mistakes and learns from them. More significantly, he often finds his solutions in the library or from helpful mentors. For instance, he could not make fire with flint and book-learning alone. He needs a kindly old man to demonstrate the whole fire making process to him.

So not only does the book show that failures are the merely part of the road to success, it also teaches us that sometimes we can figure things out by ourselves, if we persevere, but that sometimes we need good books, and sometimes we need good people to help us and show us the way. Erik and I speak of this often, in our books, on this blog and in our talks. Only now am I realizing that who planted the seed of this philosophy in my young mind.

Jean Craigshead George died this spring at the age of 92.  I wish I’d re-read this book a little sooner, so I could have sent her a letter to say thank-you.

* * *

An excerpt. Sam’s first day with his baby hawk, Frightful:

   The food put the bird to sleep I watched her eyelids close from the bottom up, and her head quiver. The fuzzy body rocked, the tail spread to steady it, and the little duck hawk almost sighed as she sank into the leaves, sleep. I had lots of time. I was going to wait for the man to leave. So I stared at my bird, the beautiful details of the new feathers, the fernlike lashes along the lids, the saucy bristles at the base of the beak. Pleasant hours passed. Frightful would awaken, I would feed her, she would fall back to  sleep, and I would watch the breath rock her body ever so slightly. I was breathing the same way, only not as fast. Her heart beat much faster than mine. She was designed to her bones for a swifter life.

[PS: It was also made into a movie in 1969. It can be ordered from Netflix, and I just found out that someone uploaded the whole thing to YouTube. I tried to watch it, but found my childhood memories quickly being degraded by the high schlock-factor.]

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21 Comments

  1. My mom really likes this book. She gave it to me to read to my son.

    I didn’t mind the run away from home scenario. However, the idea that basic survival skills could be successfully learned on the fly, and done alone, struck me as the least realistic portion of the story. Given his knowledge he may not have starved to death, but I doubt he would have been such a fat and happy camper either.

  2. I saw the obituary for Ms. George, and I too, wished I had known she was still alive so I could send her a note.

    I read (and re-read) My Side of the Mountain in late elementary school, back when books were a major window to the world beyond our rural, isolated existence. Despite growing up on a farm, the natural world seemed mostly like a not-very-significant backdrop against which our lives took place.

    At the age of 9 or 10, much of the immediate appeal of the book was the adventure, the idea of setting off alone as a person and making my own way in a place where the hand of settlement rested more lightly. The endless plowed fields and dwindling, nondescript towns of my childhood seemed very plain indeed compared to the Catskills the book led me to imagine.

    I was also completely taken by the notion that the goal of living was simply to continue living, and to enjoy that process. Sam, spending time, his most basic resource, makes a home, finds reliable food and water, and survives through pleasant summer and bitter winter. His ‘everyday’ becomes completely different than it was before he ran away, and it becomes more interesting and meaningful to him at least in part because he is so much more directly involved in satisfying his own needs. He mostly extricates himself from the great machine we are all part of, and in the process of simply existing, finds himself directly engaged with the natural world, rather than insulated by the layers of culture and technology that allow us to eat a chicken sandwich and have no idea as to its origin.

    The idea of this engagement was riveting to me at that age. It help encourage me to stop and look again at the world around me. It also helped me recognize how much mental ‘chatter’ is the product of our daily social existence, and how much that noise contributes to not actually seeing the world around us. I doubt I could have articulated that at the time I first read the book, but it planted the seed.

    Years later, I find that I still stop every so often on hikes because I can’t bear to just let it all stream by, half-noticed. To look, to stop, to be, to let the voices in my head talk themselves silent, and then in their absence find the gray cluttered landscape of my mind replaced by the cool air and tall trees of my surroundings, and then to be able to let the sound of a bellbird hang in my ears, unmeasured and unburdened with words of description or reaction – that is a behavior I attribute at least in part to the book.

    Yes, the book is a fantasy – and I knew it then, though it didn’t stop me from examining all of the biggest trees I knew for possible home sites. I never found my half-hollowed-out tree, but years later I still plan to build my own house, and I still think that providing for one’s own needs can be as worthwhile and satisfying a goal as any. We all crave accomplishment and success. Why not grow your own tomatoes instead of ‘winning’ Farmville?

    Thanks for reminding me of a great book.

  3. I also love this book and frequently recommended it as a bookseller. Parents often expressed concern about the runaway factor (or the prevalence of dead/absent parents in other books) and I would point out, how else can the kids be so in control of their lives unless they are removed from adults? It is a crucial plot element in many, many books from classics to modern favorites. Avoiding these scenarios would deprive any child from a rich reading experience.

  4. Thank you for reminding me of this book! I read it and re-read it for an entire school year, maybe third or fourth grade – it was significantly better than the selections in our class reading book. As with the other commenters, the book sparked my imagination and gave me the sense that I could control my life, something children often do not feel. Later I read the “Little House on the Prairie” books and admired the grit of the characters there, including the children, but nothing matches “My Side of the Mountain.” The book was magic.

  5. One of my favourite books as a kid. The youngest of three brothers, the thought of being off by myself was incredibly attractive.
    In retrospect, I’m sure the book had a huge impact on my life, though I never realised it. At 16, and for the next three summers, I worked on the volunteer trail crew for the Appalachian Mountain Club. And then went to university for forestry/wildlife management.
    I swear, the idea of living inside a tree held such an appeal. Tanning hides from water inside a tree trunk, hearing trees explode from the cold, walking into town to go to the library, etc. What more could an imaginative boy ask.
    I haven’t read or thought of that book in at least 35 years. Thanks for bringing it up. I should find a copy and read it to my 4-year-old.

  6. I’ve never read this, but I will now. Thanks for introducing me.
    You might try the Tough Enough and Sassy books, about a little boy, Beany, who lives with his family in the Smokies. Tough Enough is his dog and Sassy is his pony. Good books, great pictures.
    Jenny

  7. I’ve never heard of this book but it sounds similar to Island of the Blue Dolphins, which had an impact on me as a child similar to this did you. (I credit it with my survivalist interest). I love what others have said in the comments and will pick it up from my local library.

    • Same author! George also wrote the Julie of the Wolves books. Between Sam and Julie, 9-year-old-me was convinced that I could survive any wilderness in the northern US…

  8. I’m so happy to hear that others were as inspired by this book as I was.

    @Jenny: I’ll check them out!

    @Katie: I think I remember that one– but for some reason it didn’t “stick” as well. I’d like to re-read it.

  9. I have always adored this book – it is on my shelf and I reread it from time to time. And I disagree that no family would let their child live in the woods for a year. Remember that Sam is the eldest of a family of nine children. The dynamic is different in a large family. I am the youngest of 8 and I am quite sure that my parents would have let me live in the woods for a year.

    I remember as a young person wanting to live like Sam but being very disturbed by his willingness to kill animals. I was extremely tenderhearted and knew I could not do this. I hope kids are exposed to this book. It has stayed with me always.

  10. This was one of my favorite books growing up. I just recently was unpacking a box and found my (I thought) long lost copy. It has been read so often it is falling apart, but I agree it is an enchanting book for a young person to read. Thank you for sharing.

  11. I don’t know your age, I’m mid 50′s. I remember getting this book(paperback)in elementary school,1967-8? Almost forgot about it until you mentioned it, memories came back, it was a favorite. I think I’ll go to the local library and see if they have it and read it again, heck, maybe I’ll see if I can get a copy from Amazon. Thanks for your posts, I enjoy them

  12. I can’t tell you, or maybe even remember, all the half-assed things I’d tried as a kid after having read My Side of the Mountain, which will always be one of my favorite all time books from my childhood. Wow, does this bring up some embarrassing memories.

    I sooo need to read this one again. Thank you for the reminder. I am holding this at the library right away!!!

  13. My homeschooled kids adore this book series. They reread them constantly.
    As for the “elevated ” language, this is normal in our home. Remember, this book was written in the fifties.
    Plus, Sam has a sister Alice, who makes a great role model for girls, as she is just as independent as Sam.

    Ms. George also writes a great book on foraging.

  14. I also loved this book and read it over and over as a child. I kept the copy I had from 1971, and my daughter read it over and over when she was Sam’s age. (Secretly, I read it again a few times myself!)

    Growing up, I was fortunate to spend a lot af time on my Aunt and Uncle’s farm, about half of which was wooded and meadow land with a nice creek and pond. My Aunt had a beautiful kitchen garden which amply fed her family of 6, and contributed to the health and happiness of many others.

    The real fun was in the other garden–the woods and meadows. She would send my cousin and me out with a bucket or a few paper bags to gather black raspberries, gooseberries, wild strawberries, pears, puffball mushrooms, black walnuts and little tiny pecans. My Uncle and older cousins would go out and get grouse and pheasant, rabbits, frogs and the occasional deer. We ate well!

    Somehow, while enjoying all these riches it never occurred to me that we were “living off the land” like Sam Gibley did, that we were enjoying the fruits of the wilderness, or even that all that stuff outside the house was “nature”. We were just living, getting hot and sweaty and muddy out in “the back 40″ and picking up dinner on the way home.

    Reading and re-reading the book made me look closer at the world, feel braver and try harder. As a girl, it gave me a huge rush of pride that I could do much of what Sam did, and that maybe I could survive on my own in the wilderness. Maybe I could even teach him a thing or two! Or maybe not. He was good!

    40 years later, after a string of triumphs, tragedies relocations,and priority adjustments, I have a little patch of land–half an acre. There’s a Coopers Hawk nesting in back of the house, and wild strawberries carpeting the hill down to a little creek. My mom asked how I was ever going to take care of it all and I just told her that it was going to take care of me, just like the farm, just like Sam Gribley’s hemlock tree and the wonders that surrounded it, and no matter how much food I grow or discover there, what it really feeds is my soul!

    (PS. Regarding tomatoes-my Aunt always grew Rutledge tomatoes–60 or more vines every year. They were great fresh and for any kind of recipe or storage, always yielded generously, and were not fussy. They are considered an heirloom variety. I won’t plug any businesses, but just say that seeds are available and worth getting!)

  15. Growing up, our family of five “lived” this book — it had a huge impact on our views of the world (though in different ways: it turned the girls into environmentalists and the boys into hunters!) As adults and cofounders of LitWits Workshops, it’s one of our favorite books to bring to life for students in sensory ways. We’d love to share our (mostly) free resources and activity ideas with your readers. http://www.litwitsworkshops.com/free-resources/my-side-of-the-mountain/

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