Today I’m bringing back an old column of mine. It’s where I take a paragraph and examine it in whatever detail I wish. Today I’m taking a paragraph from one of my favourite books of all time. My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George is a book I read when I was very young. It totally captivated me. I have my copy from those days right in front of me, it’s falling apart but I won’t replace it. I read it again a few years ago and every time I dip into it I find the old magic is still there. Maybe that means I haven’t grown up but what it might mean is that it’s really well written. I’m presenting it to my Bookworms club on Monday. You may not be able to judge that from this paragraph but here we go.
I stopped. Now, I thought, she is going to march me into town. Into town? Well, that’s where I’ll go then, I said to myself. And I turned on my heel, smiled at her, and replied, ‘To the library.’
This paragraph is short and succinct, but it comes hard on the heels of a whole lot of information. Sam Gribley is a teenager, he’s run away from home (his Dad does seem to know about this) to live off the land in the Catskills Mountains. He succeeds and eventually his family come to join him. But it’s all the bits in the middle that are the magic.
Leading up to this paragraph we see Sam trying out different things. He’s managed to find some eggs, but he wants to try boiling them. Apparently you can boil eggs in a leaf, and we see that it does seem to work, the leaf burns down to the waterline and then stops as the water keeps the leaf wet enough to not burn. Then he puts his mind to a home. Until now he’s been sleeping outside but he wants somewhere to hole up when the visitors start coming. He’s found a hemlock tree which he thinks will do the trick, but doesn’t know how to hollow it out until he’s stamping out his fire. Ah! Fire will help hollow out the tree. But he needs a bucket of water to dowse the fire if something goes wrong. And out of nowhere comes the thought
‘Hemlocks usually grow around mountain streams and springs.’
He feels he must have seen it in a book somewhere. So off he goes to the water to find a suitable tree. In doing so he finds a crayfish and realises he’s found his dinner long before the meal. 38 pages into the book this is the first planning for the future he’s really done. Because now he’s found his water, it’s good drinking water, there’s a place for swimming, but there is no tree. But he’s also realised he doesn’t have a bucket. In other words, he’s gone from one thought to another with little planning. At this point he starts planning and gets his little ‘house’ done so he can dive into it when visitors arrive. And it’s when he’s doing more planning by putting together a bed that he comes across the old lady. But this is a couple of weeks after he finds the crayfish.
She insists he does something useful by helping her pick strawberries for her jam and then walk her back into the nearby town. He can’t get out of this but picks up some useful ideas such as making jam and also catching a bird of prey for a companion and fellow hunter. And this is where we come across the paragraph above. It feels to me as if the old lady is wanting to make sure he gets to his home, she’s obviously suspicious. The town of Delhi can’t be that big and she knows everyone around. So Sam heads off her suspicions by going to the library.
He’s previously made friends with the librarian, and she knows what he’s doing. She suggests he needs a haircut. At this point we understand why the old lady had suspicions, not just because she must know everyone around, but also he must have looked rather unkempt. At this point I think he’s been in the Catskills for about six to eight weeks. If his hair grows as fast as mine, then unkempt is definitely the word, and the phrase ‘too long’ will also be valid.
So he continues with his planning by researching hawks and falcons. Having done his research he heads back to his new home but doesn’t get there for a day or two. Scrounging food as he goes, including catching a trout, he spies a hawk and ends up snatching a young hawk from the nest. In due course Frightful will become a useful member of his family, but in the first instance she just scratches his chest as he makes his way, at speed, down the cliff with the mother hawk attacking him as he went.
Essentially, the old lady did him a good service that day. He now has a companion and a future hunter, he only has to train her.
Having given you a lot of stuff surrounding the paragraph I feel there’s not much more to say. It’s a nicely written paragraph, no spare words. It gives the impression of a teenager wanting to, and succeeding in, outwitting an old lady. And leads the way to a lot of useful stuff happening in the future. I didn’t realise it the first dozen or so times I read this book but I feel this old lady is really the key to Sam’s success in the Catskills.
Written in 1959 this is the first book in the trilogy. It seems there are also a couple of short stories accompanying this book. I suggest this book to anyone aged 10 or over, here’s the Booktopia link in case you’re interested…aged 10 to 115…I love it that much.