Boy Meets World

My Side of the Mountain
by Jean Craighead George.

My Side of the Mountain was a very special book for me. I read it when I was eleven years old, and I suppose that was the perfect age. A few months afterward, Paramount Pictures released a film adaptation, and I begged my dad to take me to see it. I have thoughts about the film version, but I will save them for a separate post. Here I want to talk about the book. I recently re-read it, 49 years later, to see how it held up. I’m pleased to report that I think it holds up very well.

From what I can tell, noodling around on the internet, the book is still well regarded in many quarters. It has won many awards. It’s the sort of book that teachers and librarians are apt to recommend to young people. It’s the story of Sam Gribley, an adolescent boy, perhaps fourteen years old, give or take a year, and the novel opens with Sam living on his own in the Catskill Mountains in December, hunkered down against a big snowstorm as he tells his story. He lived in what must have been a very crowded New York City apartment with his parents and eight (!) brothers and sisters. You won’t be surprised that Sam finds it stifling. He dreams of the outdoors, a dream shared by no one else in his family. When he hears from his father that his Gribley forefathers once owned a farm somewhere near Delhi, New York, Sam resolves to run off and live on his own at the old Gribley farm. His father indulges his fantasy, expecting Sam to return home chastened after a day or two on his own.

Surprise! Sam not only survives in the Catskills wilderness, he thrives, after a rocky start. December blizzard Sam recounts (with some embarrassment) how May tenderfoot Sam struggled to survive his first night in the wild. He whittled a fishhook out of twigs and cried after a trout broke it. He finally succeeded in catching a few fish, but utterly failed to start a fire and spent the night hungry, cold, frightened, and miserable.

But Sam learns and from this inauspicious beginning builds a life for himself alone in the forest. Most of the story is Sam solving the problems of keeping himself fed, clothed, and sheltered and storing up food for the coming winter and his occasional interactions with other people who stumble across him. Among his accomplishments, two stand out. First, he burns out the inside of a huge hemlock tree to build himself a shelter, complete with storage niches for his provender and a clay fireplace so he can keep himself warm. (He is inspired by stories of Native Americans using this technique to make dugout canoes.) Second, he steals a falcon chick, which he names Frightful after the experience of capturing her, and raises her as a hunting bird, with guidance from the local library.

It’s a charming story of a smart, kindly, persistent boy taking on the challenge of living in the wilderness and not only surviving, but doing it in style. Some of this may seem implausible, and that’s the biggest rap the book’s detractors have against it. Sam not only copes in the wilderness, he begins to make it look easy. Do not mistake this story for a gritty, realistic portrayal of what it would mean to be alone in the forest, surviving on your own wits. Still, Sam does dispense good advice, even if it is doubtful he could have learned all this reading in the New York Public Library, as he claims.

Even harder to swallow is the idea that Sam’s parents would let him run away, then not search for him frantically. Not when he doesn’t return home in a day or two; not even after he’s gone for months and winter sets into the Catskills. This was only marginally plausible in 1959; today, these parents should expect a visit from a social worker with some hard and awkward questions.

I could understand if these difficulties are too much for some modern readers, though I found the book as delightful at the age of sixty as I did at eleven, and would counsel 21st century readers to overlook the plausibility issues—think of My Side of the Mountain as an historical novel, or a fantasy, if you must—and focus instead on the deeper emotional truth at the heart of the book.

Adolescent kids—especially boys—feel the call to separate from their parents and make their own way in the world. It’s a scary moment, torn as they are between the child’s yearning for familial security and the budding adult desire to stand on one’s own two feet and find a place in the world. The message of My Side of the Mountain is this: the world may sometimes be cold, or lonely, or frightening, but you are capable of more than you realize. You have it in you not only to survive, but to thrive.

That is reason enough to love this book, and to recommend it to today’s crop of young readers, who need its message as much as kids ever did.


Barbarian at the Gate

by M. J. Engh

(Warning: This review contains spoilers for a forty-year old book.)

Arslan was written in the late 1960s and was first published in paperback in 1976. It must have come and gone with little notice: I certainly didn’t notice it. But some important people did, because in 1987 it was reissued in a hardcover edition by Arbor House. Algis Budrys, who did a book review column for Fantasy & Science Fiction at that time, wrote an extensive and enthusiastic review that motivated me to buy and read Arslan. I only read it once, thirty years ago, but I never stopped thinking about it. Once Arslan gets into your head, he’ll never leave. This is an amazing and horrifying work. It doesn’t surprise me one bit that those important people who read it in 1976 were agitating for a reprint eleven years later.

From time to time I’ve wondered what became of Arslan. Recently I got an email plugging the book and learned that yes, Arslan lives on. It’s still drawing reviews; there are some good ones here and here and here. And so, I decided to read it again after thirty years, and see how it stacks up after all this time.

Engh is a scholar of ancient history. If you know even a little ancient history, you probably heard stories of peaceful, prosperous civilizations suddenly confronted by an irresistible barbarian army led by a charismatic commander. Think Attila. Think Genghis Khan. Think Tamerlane. Think, an army of people who respect nothing but raw power. And they have all the power. We think of this sort of confrontation as something belonging to the ancient past. Arslan asks a simple but hard question: What would it look like if middle America of the 1960s encountered a modern Genghis Khan and his horde?

I can’t honestly “recommend” this book. It is powerful and memorable. It is also deeply disturbing. Whether you ought to read it depends on how you feel about a deeply disturbing book that will haunt your thoughts for the rest of your life. Some people rave about this book; others report throwing it against the wall after the first chapter. I should give a trigger warning here, because this book contains, well, just about every awful thing you can imagine one human being doing to another. To paraphrase Nietzsche, beware of looking too deeply into Arslan, lest you find Arslan looking deeply into you. Follow me to the other side, if you dare, but don’t say I didn’t warn you….

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