My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
Posted Winter 2019
First, I suppose I should get this out of the way: I consider this book to be fantasy, even though it might not fit into a tight interpretation of the genre. It is a children’s novel about a kid in 1950s New York that runs off to live in the Catskill Mountains on his own. There’s no magic or goblins in sight, just weasels and peregrine falcons. But there is a sense of fantasy – every kid at one point or another dreams about running away from home. This kid does it – and succeeds.
What to say about this book? It literally is one of the reasons I adore reading and writing so much. I first encountered it when I was a child of eight or nine. My older brother had read it first and he handed it to me. I think I read it in one night. Then I read it again, and again, and again. Before too long, my copy of the novel was dog-eared and exuding that unnameable quality that becomes attached to a well-loved story. It transported me deeper into my imagination than I ever thought possible.
I am done with numbered scores unless mandated by something like Goodreads - this isn't a report card. I loved it - interpret that how you wish.
Like I said, the story is about a teenager, Sam Gribley, who runs away from his home in New York City to live on his own in the Catskill Mountains. He gathers up a few things – a penknife, a flint, some string, a few dollars, and a heart full of courage. He calls a cab and gets dropped off upstate, somewhat near an ancient family farm that was long abandoned.
The first night on his own is described in great detail, and is an extremely effective set up. Sam has absolutely no idea what he is doing. He had done some very cursory research about making a lean-to and various scouting skills, but in practice, he is inept. For example, he has no idea how to make a fire with his flint. Nor does he know how to fish or hunt. He spends the first night freezing cold in the rain and ready to give up.
The next day, though, he has a chance encounter with a guy living in a house on the mountain, who tells him exactly how to get to the old family farm and how to make a fire. He gives him a few more tips, gives him some food, and lets him bed down for a comfortable snooze. As a mentor / guru character, this guy barely takes up more than a couple of pages, but he gives Sam the guidance he needs to make it on his own.
And make it he does. Sam embarks on an adventure, finding the old farm, visiting the library to figure out what vegetation is edible in the environment, finding a tree in which to build a home. This was one of the more exciting things for me, as Sam discovers a massive oak and burns out a little home in the heart of the tree. You have to recall that I was very young when I first read this – around the time when forts and bases were exactly what was cool in my developing world.
Sam does it all – makes his own fish hooks, teaches himself falconry at the library and gets himself a falcon to help him hunt, learns how to steal deer from poachers, befriends the local wildlife. Part of the charm was watching Sam learn, evolve, and grow from his mistakes. His triumphs are the reader’s triumphs.
The environment itself is his antagonist to a degree. He has to contend with the approaching winter and manages to successfully survive a frigid season in his little cubbyhole. One of the more memorable scenes is directly after a big freezing rainstorm. When he goes outside, there are sheets of inch-thick ice on the branches and trunks of the trees around the forest. Then the smaller ones start to explode from the weight, making big banging sounds. That image of the exploding forest was so vivid, and such a strong symbol of the awesome power of nature.
Sam’s tree, an ancient oak, survives the day and the spring thaw eventually comes. With it, more concerns about the encroachment of humans into his remote world. Between fire rangers investigating Sam’s fires and an English teacher on summer leave befriending him, Sam has a hard time keeping his existence a secret. Eventually, the kid’s family catches up to him and find him living in his handsome little home in the tree. Although they are proud of Sam’s victory, they tell him that they are building a ‘real’ home back on the family land and that Sam has to go back to school.
When I was a kid, I used to find the ending somewhat deflating. After all of that, he has to go back to society? Back to school? But, looking at it now, I just treasure the virtues that I had no idea were imprinting themselves upon me from the pages of the now-yellowing paperback. Courage in the face of the unknown, self-reliance, love of nature – these are all things that I have come to believe in whole-heartedly. They are the ingredients of a life well-lived, as far as I’m concerned.
This book is something, a marvel for any age, but if you have young children, ones getting into the 7 – 16 or so range, or are one yourself, you would be doing them a great service by putting it in their hands / getting yourself a copy.
Thank you for everything, Ms. George.