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.


A Hard Man Is Good to Find

by Fonda Lee

Exo, a young adult SF novel by Fonda Lee, is a great illustration of three of the things a science fiction story can do really well.

One is fantasy fulfillment. Exo is set 150 years in our future, and its protagonist, 17-year old Donovan Reyes is a soldier with a difference. He is an “exo,” meaning that his body has been modified so that he can exude at will a hard exoskeleton, tough enough to stand up to bullets. Don’t even try to hit him with your bare hand. In the time it takes you to swing, his armor will go up and you will hurt yourself worse than him.

It’s high concept, and a great metaphor for a young adult novel. What adolescent wouldn’t want emotional armor that snaps into place when things get tough and lets all the hurt just bounce off you? But this is science fiction, so there’s a catch. Earth of the mid-22nd century is a complicated place. A hundred years earlier, humans were defeated in a terrible war by a non-humanoid alien race called the zhree. Now zhree colonists rule the planet, in cooperation with human governments. Their rule seems benevolent, or at least gentle, but then we are seeing it through Donovan’s eyes, and Donovan is one of the elite humans whom the zhree have admitted into their complex caste system. What life is like for the majority of humans who are not among the chosen is left largely for the reader to speculate upon. Donovan himself isn’t much interested; he seems pretty divorced from the concerns of ordinary humans. His father is a high-ranking official in the collaborationist government; his exo armor is zhree technology. Donovan’s role as a soldier-cop seems mostly to hunt down Sapience, a well-organized anti-zhree resistance movement. Is it that most humans who are not among the elite support Sapience, as the novel makes it appear? Or is this a consequence of seeing his world through Donovan’s eyes, where most of the humans he meets are either the elite or Sapience troublemakers?

A second thing science fiction can do well is illustrate for the reader the experience of being othered. Sapience extremists believe soldiers like Donovan are traitors to their species, and that exos are not merely modified physically by the zhree but also mentally, and have been made into mindless slaves. Killing an exo is to them no crime. It may even be an act of mercy. The zhree colonists on Earth like humans well enough, but we also meet zhree from other worlds who find human appearance repulsive and question whether humans are worth all the trouble they cause. Donovan believes in himself and his work, yet as his story unfolds, he must endure abuse—both emotional and physical—from both zhree and human extremists.

Yet conflicts come in shades of gray, another lesson science fiction, and Exo, present effectively. Not all Sapience members are cold blooded; some see Donovan as a likable young man led astray by the aliens. Some zhree fully embrace humans as their equals; one of the zhree characters even covers for Donovan when he goes rogue. It helps that Lee has given us a cast of well-drawn characters to illuminate the full spectrum of views in this complicated world she’s created.

This world is big. It’s no surprise that a sequel is in the works, as there’s plenty of room left for more stories. Though the canvas is broad, Exo is a personal story. It is Donovan’s story. At first he seems pretty confident in his understanding of the world and his place in it. I might even call him “hard bitten”; surprisingly so in such a young man. But then when you follow him from the warrens of Sapience to the highest levels of zhree government, you discover along with him that there is much more to his world, and to Donovan himself, than either of you suspected.

Exo is just the kind of story that got a lot of us started reading science fiction. It would make a good gift for a young person interested in science fiction. It might also be just the gift for that young person you’re trying to get interested in science fiction.

Narrator, Unreliable

character, driven hc.indd

Character, Driven
by David Lubar
Tor. 2016.


DISCLAIMER: I am going to say some mildly spoilery things about this book farther down in the review. If that bothers you, you should bail before you get there. Don’t worry; I’ll warn you.

I was not previously acquainted with the work of David Lubar. Now I’m going to have to correct that oversight. Character, Driven is a masterful coming-of-age story that, incidentally, is also something of a catalog of literary devices, as the title implies.

We are introduced to Cliff, the first-person narrator of the story. Cliff (as in “on the edge”) is a clever, witty, charming young man who comes to life on the first page, and makes you feel sorry to say goodbye on the last. I speak from personal experience when I say that creating an adolescent character who is charming and authentic at the same time is no small feat, but Lubar makes it look easy.

Cliff has the usual sort of teenager problems. He’s a high school senior who doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life. There’s a new girl in the school that Cliff is interested in, but he’s afraid to ask her out. He is not popular (odd, considering how likable he is, but we’ll get back to that), although he has the usual circle of offbeat friends. He’s working two part-time jobs and having trouble staying awake in class. And he is brutally honest with the reader, sharing his deepest, most shameful thoughts and bravely recounting his life’s greatest embarrassments.

His honesty aside, Cliff has a playful streak, and he lets it run loose with you, the reader. He indulges in word play that ranges from sophisticated to eye-rolling. He gives the characters in his story Dickensian names that reflect their natures. (A teacher with a drinking problem is Mr. Tippler. A super-competitive classmate is Abby Striver. A classmate who has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is Jimby Fasborne.) And he plays with every literary device you can think of, often in the context of denying he’s doing it:

I was almost at the door at the rear of the gym when something smacked the back of my head. I could try to craft a clever literary device to convey disorientation total my but that thing of sort is half too clever by. So, it with on get let’s.

Speaking of literary devices, let’s not overlook the Unreliable Narrator. I suppose that’s slightly spoilery, but before you condemn me, consider that Cliff opens the book by describing himself being beaten within an inch of his life by a stepfather in an alcoholic rage, then picks himself up, dusts himself off (metaphorically speaking), and asks you, the reader, “Do I have your attention? Good. That’s crucial. Grab the reader with the first sentence.” It turns out he doesn’t even have a stepfather; he lives with both his biological parents. His dad is an accountant.

If the self-conscious literary devices and the made-up names and the fanciful opening scene aren’t enough to drive home the point that Cliff isn’t quite as honest as he seems, he concludes the opening chapter by proclaiming that his story better have a good plot, because he is not strong enough of a character to drive the novel himself. Apart from the meta-fictional novelty of watching a character draw his own conclusions about how strong a character he is, in truth Cliff couldn’t be more wrong. This is absolutely a character-driven story, as, um, Lubar told you in the title. So that Cliff is not a 100% trustworthy narrator is obvious early on.

I suspect any teenage boy who likes to read will see a lot of himself in Cliff, and I would recommend the book highly to any and all of them. As well as to any teenage girl who might be wondering what makes boys tick. I also recommend it to older people, like me, who enjoy a good young adult story. This novel made me feel like a teenager again, and at my age, that’s quite a feat. A greater one, even, than creating a likable and authentic teenager.

Also, though I can hardly imagine a worse thing an old person like me might say to a young person to induce them to read a book than, “It will be good for you. You’ll learn something,” it is nevertheless true. The self-conscious style makes Character, Driven a good choice for young people (even not-so-young people) with an interest in writing, or interested in examining the craft of writing.

Okay, it’s time for you spoiler-averse people to bail now. I have one more thing to say. A mild spoiler follows.

I read this book twice in the first week. Why twice? Because there is a revelation on page 277 (out of 290) that made me blurt out “Oh, my God!” to the empty room I was sitting in when I read it. Because, though Cliff has been brutally frank with the reader up to that moment, he has one secret he shares with no one, not even you. As Character, Driven progresses, the reader will begin to pick up that there is an inexplicable sadness in Cliff’s core that comes through in spite of his attempts to laugh it off. Sure, he’s got the usual teenager problems, but when he spends a chapter toying with the idea of suicide, we know something is way wrong.

Cliff eventually comes clean. Not only is there something important in his life that he has been keeping from the reader, he’s even gone so far as to make tweaks to the story, in order to distract you from the one thing Cliff can’t face up to. When he finally finds the courage to tell you (and everyone else), his life changes dramatically.

And so does the book. Most of what’s already happened is now revealed in a new light. And now you have to read it all over again, in that new light. The only other work I can think of to compare this to is The Sixth Sense, the 1999 film by M. Night Shyamalan. Not because Character, Driven has any supernatural elements (it doesn’t), but because, like the film, once you know the reveal at the end, it becomes an entirely different story. And that is David Lubar’s greatest feat of all.