Tuesday, November 04, 2008

My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George

I picked this book up on a complete whim one day. Sure, I'd heard of it but I had never read it. I know nothing of it's significance and/or the role it has played in YA fiction. It just sounded interesting to me.

I also knew nothing about Jean Craighead George and, truth be told, I thought the introduction she gave at the beginning of this Puffin edition, about how this book came to be published, was way more interesting than the story itself. Not to say that the book wasn't interesting (it was) - but the background was considerably more so.

Apparently the publisher initially did not want to take a risk with this book and refused to publish it. However, he changed his mind when presented with the idea that most "runaway children" stories involved children leaving the country to explore the delights of the big city. My Side of the Mountain takes a different approach in having a young boy runaway from his home in the city to live in the wilderness. Considering that intriguing twist, he agreed to publish it.

George herself is a nature lover and was raised in a camping/wilderness exploring family. (Can you tell that I am SO not an outdoorsy type of person based on that last sentence alone?) On George's website (which, btw, is the best author's website I have seen yet!) she answers a question about how My Side of the Mountain came to be. This is what she says:

Let me tell you why I wrote My Side of the Mountain. When I was a kid, my father who was an entomologist and ecologist, took my brothers and me into the wilderness along the Potomac River near Washington, D. C., our home. He taught us the plants and animals, where to find wild asparagus and other edible plants. We made lean-tos to sleep in, fished with our own homemade fish hooks and basswood fiber lines and trained falcons. My brothers were two of the first falconers in the United States and gave me a falcon to train when I was thirteen. It was a glorious childhood.

That description, my friends, is pretty much what sums up My Side of the Mountain. It is a story about a boy named Sam who runs away from home with his father's "consent" and knowledge. His father knows that Sam is headed towards a forgotten piece of family property in the Catskill Mountains. Sam befriends a hawk, lives inside a tree, hunts, makes his own clothes (I found that part extremely far fetched, but hey!) makes his own eating utensils, and so on and so forth and exists in this friendly wilderness for one year's time.

This book is entirely appealing for a younger child with a vivid imagination. I can tell you that I would have absolutely loved this book when I was 11 or 12 and before I could spot the flaws. One difficulty in having read this book (published 1960) in 2008 is that no child would be permitted to run away in this same way today, and if any kid did attempt this, the entire nation would know about it in less than three days. You have to turn off the media in your head in order to revel in this story.

That said, I did find it entertaining and can see how any kid between the ages of 9-12 could really enjoy this.

After finishing this book I realized that this was the same author that wrote Julie and the Wolves (I'm slow, I know!). I've had Julie sitting on my shelf since last Christmas. I figured there probably was no better time like the present to really engage with George's writings and I thought I'd dive right into Julie and the Wolves and did so. I didn't get very far with Julie. I found the book strange and disconcerting. The premise of a child bride running away from her teenage husband and living with (and nursing from!?) a pack of wolves just didn't grab me and left me feeling generally disturbed so I left that story and moved on. I cannot say that I have any interest in going back to the wolf pack, but I'm mildly curious about the mountainside in My Side of the Mountain's sequel, On the Far Side of the Mountain. And then if you can't get enough, you can also read Frightful's Mountain (Frightful is the name of the Sam's Hawk).

Do you have any fond memories of this book and long to share? Leave a note!


Sarah M. said...

I am glad you read the book, even if I posted a review. :) I had a lot of the same thoughts you did about the book... as for the other book, Julie and the wolves... yeah that sounds really odd....

Emily said...

Hahah funny story about this book. I was walking one day and I saw it laying on the sidewalk of the schoolyard. So of course, I picked it up! Just then, a kid was playing with darts and it flew straight towards me and instead of puncturing me, it hit the book!! After that incident, I had to read the book! And of course, it was one of my favorite books (:

Z-Kids said...

Haven't read "Mountain" though I've got it on my bookcase. After reading your description I think I'm going to have to now... It perfectly describes the kind of fantasy play I engaged in as a kid. Thanks for the review!

I read Julie of the Wolves as a kid and loved it. And over the years I had recommended it to lots of youg'uns. Then as an adult I reread it - to my son actually - and was fairly mortified and actually skipped lots of bits on the fly as we went. I did not remember all the weirdness, and the adult issues must have simply flown over my head first time around.


Anonymous said...

This is one of those titles I keep seeing but have never investigated. I'm glad you pointed out the differences between the time period this story was written in vs, what it would be like today. Sounds intriguing!

ChristineMM said...

"My Side" was read aloud to my son in an experiential nature/science class run for homeschoolers. He had to know what happened next so he read it to himself and loved it, when he was 9 years old.

One of my son's friends had read it when he was 9 and the result was that boy developed an over-confidence in the ability to go live in nature and survive.

I then read it and really enjoyed it. What bugged me was that the family didn't come looking for him much and more importantly that the kid never had one real stumbling block all winter. Everything always went right for him, so it was too unrealistic for me.

My son treasures this book. He didn't like the sequel much and hated Frightful's Mountain which he said is told through the hawk's voice.

As an antidote to this book while on a long car drive, I read aloud a true story of a boy who was 12 (I think) who got lost on a family hike on top of Mt. Kathadin in Maine in the 1930s. Now that is a fantastic story and it is the true horrors of what happens to a boy lost in the woods who does know outdoor skills from Boy Scouts and what his father taught him. That boy lived in the woods for 3 weeks and came out alive. My grandmother lives near that location and recalled the story when it was happening when the National Guard was out in the woods searching for the boy. I highly recommend that book, it is called 'Lost on a Mountain in Maine'.

One more thing. Many, many third or fourth graders in public school do a big unit study on "Julie of the Wolves". When I listened to the audiobook, I was horrified, especially with the rape scene. The notion of a child bride and forced sexual relations really bothered me. I was also very moved by the wolves and the deaths. I cannot for the life of me understand why or how this is being used in classrooms with 8 and 9 year old children. Plus some young kids will be very upset over the wolves and the hunting.

However actually that book is being supplanted by another book to study "Because of Winn Dixie" for 4th graders to read and do a unit study on which I also have issues with. I feel that book has serious deep themes some of which are a bit much for 9 year old's. I was crying at the end and wonder if young kids who read it are so moved.

Or maybe when certain literature is forced upon children too young to comprhend all the themes much of it goes over their head and may protect them? If that is the case why bother reading those books in the first place?

Carrie said...

Christinemm - I really appreciated your comment here and the time you spent writing it up. Thanks much! I'm in agreement with you about J and the W. I also appreciated hearing your son's opinions on the Mountain sequels.

thatonegirlemily - HA! That's hilarious and yes, it would make that book fairly memorable. I can't imagine anyone having a better story than that!

ChristineMM said...

You got me going and after I posted my comment I wrote more and expanded it into a blog post bordering on a rant.

In case you or anyone wants to read it, here is the blog post URL

That is the type of thing I do when I have free time and someone get's my mind I must get away from this computer before it sucks me in again. LOL.

BTW I found you through Semicolon's Sat Review of Books to which I also contribute.

Pete in Cincy said...

I read this book when I was in 4th grade. I loved it afterwards, despite never being a boy scout, read the boy scout manual back and forth many times. I hatched a plan with a couple other boys in the neighborhood to meet at 3am to run away to mountains. We picked a spot to meet in the woods near our house. I packed an old army back back with some cloth's a knife, some fishing string, hooks and twinkies! I crawled out the window around 2:30am, and waited to almost dawn - no one showed. I crawled back through my bedroom.window dejected. What memory! I'm now 49 years old.

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