I must admit that although Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet won the Newbery in 1987, I’ve never been that interested in reading the novel—or any of his other books for some reason. I remember checking out the summary on the back of Hatchet, which is a wilderness survival story for young teens. Since my version of camping involves a screened-in cabin with running water, I dismissed this book as a “boy’s book” and Paulsen as a writer for boys. (Thinking that I've since realized is highly influenced by society's prescribed gender roles.) Thankfully, though, Paulsen's Woods Runner recently caught my attention – mainly because after reading The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson, I gained a sudden interest in Y.A. Revolutionary War fiction and found that Paulsen’s Woods Runner was another somewhat recent addition to that category.
The novel is about thirteen-year-old Samuel, whose way of life is shattered when a group of British soldiers and Iroquois Indians brutally attack his home. Samuel has lived his whole life with his parents on a small settlement in the wilderness of Pennsylvania, a great distance from any of the established colonies and out of touch with their daily doings. A messenger has only just delivered news of the war between the American colonists and the British, reporting information of the battles at Lexington and Concord months after they had occurred, when their settlement is attacked. This occurs while Samuel is out hunting, and when he returns, he finds that most of his community has been violently slaughtered. He finds evidence, however, that his parents have been taken captive instead of being murdered and so he sets out after the British company, hoping that he will be able to rescue his mother and father. His journey brings him into contact with a several groups of sympathetic people and takes him all the way to New York City, where he must then try to free his father from a filthy prison over-crowded with other colonists and patriots.
There were several reasons that I appreciated and enjoyed this novel much more than I expected that I would. First of all, though Children’s Literature and Young Adult Fiction frequently feature adolescents who must save the day, it is established early on that Samuel is realistically capable of tracking the British soldiers and rescuing his parents. Because he has been raised in the woods, learning to hunt and provide for his family, he is physically strong, skilled at survival, and already a man in many respects. This made it much more plausible that a thirteen-year-old could ever hope to find and free his parents from a group of grown military men.
I was also surprised that by describing the connection that Samuel feels with nature, Paulsen made the wilderness and survival aspects of the story much more appealing to me. A large portion of the novel follows Samuel’s journey through the backwoods of Pennsylvania and toward New York, a setting and storyline that I would not typically relish. But because the main character was so well-developed, I was able to connect with Samuel on an emotional level and become engrossed in the story, even though I am not a person who enjoys roughing it or has had any significant experience in the wilderness. Moreover, the quest narrative sets Woods Runner apart from other survival novels and war stories; the reader gets caught up in Samuel’s mission to rescue his parents, which in some ways can be more easily understood than the landscape of the entire war. Through the story of Samuel and his family, therefore, Paulsen provides a way of understanding the much larger story of the Americans and the British.
In addition to the characterization of Samuel, I also appreciated the way that this novel dealt with the needless violence of the war and the experiences of distant settlers. This second aspect is something that I had never considered when learning about the Revolutionary War. There were many people who were drawn into the conflict between the American patriots and the British who would rather have simply stayed out of the fray; Samuel’s family and community represents these casualties of war. Furthermore, while the details that Paulsen gives are not overly-gory, he does not avoid the disturbing brutality of war and its emotional effects on Samuel, as well as the other children and adults in the story. When he finds the mutilated bodies of his friends and neighbors, he has a particularly visceral reaction that allows the reader to understand the extent of the violence committed against his community. Paulsen gives his readers a stark picture of how war can victimize even the youngest, the most innocent and the most peripheral to the conflict.**
Overall, Paulsen’s development of Samuel’s character makes this a relatable novel, even for readers who have not spent time in the wilderness; meanwhile, the author’s historical accuracy and honesty help to create intensify the urgency of Samuel’s quest and invite the reader to consider new perspectives regarding our own American history. Therefore, I think this novel is an important read for both children and adults.
**Although Woods Runner offers a different perspective from that of the usual blazing American patriots that are depicted in other Revolutionary War fictions, I need to acknowledge that Paulsen still commits an omission that is typical of much Y.A. Revolutionary War Fiction -- he does not discuss the plight and perspective of the African Americans during this conflict. I am, however, not one to expect a book to be all things to all people; Samuel's community would not have been likely to have contact with any African American slaves and so I don't feel that this is a flaw for this particular story.