|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.]