Thursday, May 27, 2010

Reading Notes - My Side of the Mountain

One of the great pleasures of reading with and to my children is revisiting books I loved as a child.

Sometimes this is, of course, intentional; I sought out the Famous Five and Wind in the Willows, Ramona and Swallows & Amazons, E Nesbitt and Lewis Carroll, to share with my girls.

Other times, we stumble across books that I half-remember; books that, once we start reading, I know instantly are familiar to me, whose aesthetic is embedded somewhere in my subconscious memory. One such book was From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler, which I remembered vividly but only as "the book about running away from home to live in the museum". Another, even more potently and happily re-encountered, was the book we have just finished - Jean Craighead George's classic, My Side of the Mountain (1959).

My Side of the Mountain (MSOTM) is, like the Mixed-Up Files, a book about an adolescent running away from home, but is otherwise quite unlike it. Sam Gribley, the protagonist of MSOTM, has little in common with Claudia Kincaid, barring a strength of will and determination to carry the project of flight and independence through. Sam's mission is very much more serious, and permanent, than Claudia's - leaving his overcrowded family home in the city, he heads for an abandoned family farm in the Catskill Mountains to live free and independently, off the wild land. When the action commences, Sam is thirteen.

There is so much practical magic in this book that it's difficult to fully capture it. Sam's first-person narrative, describing his methods of hunting, gathering, surviving, making fire, making clothing, and (to my daughter's untrammelled delight) making his home inside the hollow centre of a tree, is utterly engrossing. The voice is pitch-perfect to my adult ears, just as it was when I first read it at age 9 - Sam is serious, capable, sturdy, intelligent, thoughtful, and young. He does not read as an adult, with adult concerns, but nor does he read as a child. He reads as an adolescent on the cusp of manhood, full of potential, flexibility, committment and energy, not yet constrained by pre-set views of how the world works and how one must operate within it. One of my 5-year-old's favourite passages in the book captures this excitement and clean joy in the world that fills Sam's narrative:

"The following morning I stood up, stretched, and looked about me. Birds were dripping from the trees, little birds, singing and flying and pouring over the limbs. 'This must be the warbler migration', I said, and I laughed because there were so many birds. I had never seen so many. My big voice rolled through the woods and their little voices seemed to rise and answer me..." (p 25)

My daughter says that this passage makes her feel like she can hear the birds and feel happy hearing them.

I love Sam deeply for the vision he presents of what adolescence can be if not shuttered by adult jaundice and expectations - a time of limitless possibilities, a time of explosion of creative energy and exploration of self and world. Sam is highly capable of taking care of himself, without being a superhero, and is voracious in his desire to learn about his world and live within it. (And it's also notable, and heartening, that Sam is only a 'runaway' in a technical sense, having left home on his endeavour with his father's knowledge and consent: "Sure, go try it. Every boy should try it.")

Sam has many adventures and challenges on his mountain, but the most profound is his rearing of a peregrine falcon chick to be his hunting bird. Stealing the baby chick from its nest (which provoked a little tut-tutting here), Sam trains the glorious Frightful to catch game for him and return to his side. Frightful becomes not only a potent weapon in Sam's struggle to survive and thrive in the mountains, but his constant and faithful companion. She is acutely drawn and acquires a presence of her own that is magnified a hundredfold in the two sequels to MSOTM - On the Far Side of the Mountain and Frightful's Mountain. In a near-miraculous feat, the author manages to give Frightful an individuality without anthropomorphizing her. Frightful doesn't have a personality; she has a bird-identity, a bird-consciousness, and it jumps up brilliantly from the page.

Sam is often described in reviews and critiques as a throwback, yearning after a simpler, more natural, life, and sometimes as a hermit, seeking solitude as he appears to do. My 7-year-old rightly refutes these ideas, however, pointing out that Sam gets lonely for people and seeks them out, and forms friendships with townspeople and most notably the college professor, Bando, who stumbles across his clearing. "He likes to not have to see people all the time, Mum," she mused, "but I think he does like people. And he needs friends to talk to, like everyone." For myself, I would never characterise Sam as a frontiering throwback. He lacks entirely the sense of triumphalism and bending of the land to his own will that that implies for me. In his vision of his life, he is, if anything, a precursor of modern environmentalism and low-impact living. Indeed, Sam takes matters to the extreme, leaving the lightest footprint a human could hope to do upon his mountain home.

As we finished the book today (it ends with Sam's entire family arriving, declaring their intention to live on the mountain with him), my eldest daughter sighed. "That was so good, Mum," she said. "It made me interested in all sorts of things, like how to fish and make a fire and eat different plants and things. I don't think I'd want to do it all but it feels so interesting to hear about it." "Yeah", the 5-year-old contributed. "Like you were really there, holding Sam's hand." Can there be any higher compliment for a book than that?

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