My 8 year old son is obsessed with the idea of living on his own in the wilds. He often talks about how he wishes he could live in the woods and hunt his own food. This coming from a boy who has never hunted and barely fished, there just seems to be an innate call of the wild inside of him. I think that’s why this particular novel kept his interest for close to a week of bedtime reading sessions. My husband had read it as a young man, quite a few years older than our son, but he was absolutely right in his estimation that it would be a total hit.
Today’s brings us an oldie but goodie. My Side of the Mountain, written by Jean Craighead George, was first published in 1959 and spins the rugged tale of Sam Gribley, a teen growing up in New York City who longs to live on his own in the wilds of the Catskills Mountains. He has heard his father tell stories of an old homestead that has been in the Gribley family since his grandfather was a young man and he makes it his mission to leave home, find the old Gribley farm and start a new life for himself, depending only on his wits and the land to provide for himself.
Sam sets out for the wilderness in May, leaving the city and all of the comforts of home behind him. He brings with him a penknife, a ball of cord, an ax, some flint and steel and $40 that he saved from selling magazine subscriptions. He takes a train to the Catskills in Upstate New York where he then relies on hitchhiking with several drivers to take him further into the mountains. Although my son is still years from even thinking about hitching (I hope!) we did stop to have a sort conversation about how dangerous it is to accept rides from strangers. Things were certainly very different in 1959!
But as Sam quickly finds the family homestead and begins to find his footing in the forest, you realize that though he may be a ‘city boy’ by birth, Sam is completely at home in the wilderness. He has done his homework, so to speak, by studying books on how to survive in the wilderness that he checked out from the New York Public Library. And though his is living off the land, he does not shy away from visiting the nearby small town of Delhi, where he visits the local library to research a question he can’t answer on his own.
As far as role models for young boys go, I have no complaints about Sam. He doesn’t run away from home in an act of teenage angst. His parents always know where to find him. He is very careful to be respectful of the land and uses everything he hunts, fishes or gathers. He is incredibly resourceful, teaching himself to make elaborate meals from the ingredients he’s able to forage from the forest. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment is the hollowing out of a tree in which he creates a very cozy home for himself, to include a bed, a stove and creature comforts like cooking pots, utensils, pillows and blankets. He also tans and dries deer skins to create his own clothing.
In an attempt to procure a companion, he takes a young falcon from her nest before she becomes a fledgling. Though most would argue that this was unethical, it’s not touched on in the book so you’d have to initiate that conversation on your own. But there is no doubt that Sam absolutely dotes on the falcon who he names Frightful. He teaches her to land on his fist and how to spot prey in the air and on the ground. There is no chance that Sam would have lasted as long in the wilderness on his own without the friendship he has with Frightful.
But that’s not to say that Sam is completely without human interaction during his time in the woods. He becomes friendly with the librarian in Delhi and she is very kind to him during his visits. He has a run in with a man who he originally believes to be a fugitive but who is actually a lost college professor from the city. Because he believes the man to be on the run, he calls him Bando. Bando comes to visit Sam twice in the story, bringing him news clippings of stories about ‘the wild boy who lives alone in the Catskills’.
Yes, it would seem that after crossing paths with an old woman picking berries in the forest, she felt compelled to tell the world of his wild existence. His camp is visited by a game warden who he is able to elude, as his home in the tree is so well concealed. He also shares his camp with a curious teen boy from Delhi and his own father, who comes to check on his son after reading the paper’s accounts of his son, the ‘wild boy’.
This story was both exciting and subdued. I’ll put it this way, if a nearly 200 page book published 60 years ago can hold the attention of a boy who will ordinarily take any chance to negotiate screen time, I have to give it an A+. Sam proved himself to be a wonderful role model who used his industriousness to create a safe home and keep himself well fed, while making friends with both animals and humans. My only real complaint about the book would be the very ending, as I feel it goes against everything Sam spent the entire book working toward but hey, that’s family for you. That reference will make more sense after you read the book… now go get it!