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Gary Paulsen, whose books have taught generations of children how to survive in the woods with just a hatchet, died Wednesday at the age of 82; his editor said it was “sudden” but gave no cause.
Paulsen was best known for these wilderness survival stories, although he wrote over 200 books in his lifetime, and three of his novels, Hatchet, Dog song and The winter room, were Newbery’s honor books.
Paulsen was born in Minnesota in 1939. In a memoir, Gone in the woods which came out earlier this year, Paulsen wrote about a tough childhood. His father had gone to fight in World War II; his mother was an alcoholic, and his drinking and nightlife was one of Paulsen’s earliest memories.
“She would take me to bars and blackmail me for the soldiers to meet the men and to drink more. I lived on Coke and the fried chicken that the bartenders gave me a lot,” he told NPR in an interview.
Alone on the train with a five dollar bill
When he was 5, Paulsen’s mother put him on a train, alone, with nothing but a $ 5 bill and a suitcase, and sent him to live with his aunt and uncle in their farm in northern Minnesota. There he learned how to catch and cook fish over a campfire and use the smoke to ward off mosquitoes at night, skills that characters in his later novels would use to survive.
Paulsen wrote fondly about his time with his aunt and uncle, but it was short-lived. He was reunited with his parents when he was 7 and started running away soon after.
“I ended up in the woods,” he said. “All the time.”
The other place Paulsen sought refuge during those cold Minnesota winters was in the library, where an attentive librarian noticed him and gave him a library card, then books, then a Scripto notebook and a number two pencil, to write his thoughts.
“None of this would have happened except this,” Paulsen said.
He won a Newbery Honor and wondered what it meant
Over the course of his life, Paulsen took turns working as a farm worker, engineer, construction worker, ranch worker, truck driver, sailor, and even traveled with a carnival. He quit a job as a satellite technician for an aerospace company in California and spent the following year in Hollywood as a magazine proofreader.
The first writing he was paid for was for westerns, under the pseudonym Paul Garrison. When he won a Newbery Honor for Dog song in 1986, he didn’t know what that meant.
“I really didn’t. I was in the kennel with the dogs and my wife handed me the phone,” Paulsen said. “And then we got a check. We were living on three to four thousand dollars a year.”
Today, the publisher of Paulsen claims that 35 million copies of his books are printed. He continued to find refuge in the woods and lived a life outside, running the Iditarod dog sled race twice, almost dying the second time around and spending two years sailing around the world, all the way to Alaska and back to the Sea of Cortez. In 1997 he received the ALA Margaret A. Edwards Award for his contribution to young adult literature.
Gary Paulsen is survived by his wife and son, and one last novel. North wind, a historic adventure about a youngster’s fight to stay alive through thick and thin, will be released in January 2022.
This story was edited for radio by Rose Friedman and adapted for the web by Samantha Balaban and Petra Mayer.
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