So traditionally, a Gary Paulsen novel wouldn’t be the first thing I reach for to read. I reach “Hatchet” in 5th grade (like so many millennials did) and while I enjoyed it, I wasn’t overly enamored with it. Fantasy and sci fi are wicked temptresses that always pulled me away. But THIS book….
I read most of “Northwind” by Gary Paulsen in the school pick-up line (like parents do) and I cried quietly in my car. Multiple times. Thinking about it now while writing this, I’m STILL getting choked up. And it’s not even a “sad” book (although it does contain sad things). If anything, the book is filled with hope, longing, self discovery, peace, and a greater understanding of one’s place in this greater world we live in. Drive. Purpose. Remembering. Storytelling. Perhaps the thing that makes me MOST choked about this particular read is that I’ll never get to thank Mr. Paulsen for the impact that the book had on this 30-something mother of two who needed the message and catharsis provided by this novel. Sure, it’s written for young adult/old middle grade readers like all of Paulsen’s other books are, but this book definitely hits different if you’re a grown up. Honestly, this book felt so different than a typical Paulsen text in some ways and I wonder if it was because this was a world Paulsen so intimately knew (based on the author’s note at the end), or if it was because Paulsen tried his hand at ambiguous historical fiction, or if it was some grander combination of both.
Okay, after all that emotional spew, onto a brief summary & some defects and delights. Phew.
The book starts with The Saga of Sea Child, a viking-esque saga/poem that provides the exposition for our main character, Leif, who’s mother died bringing him into the world and who’s father had “passed to Valhalla fighting a whale” and was, as the saga tells, “was born an orphan. Alone.” Leif, going into the story, knows no other life than the one handed to him by fate – a life of hardship and work, taken onto the hunting/whaling boats as soon as he was able to walk, growing up to know nothing but the sea. When the story begins, Leif (now a young teenage), along with a few other older men and a little orphan boy, have been left ashore by their larger ship to catch salmon and process them into preserved rations for the whole company when they return to pick them up. But the larger vessel never returns for them, likely lost to the sea, and the small company of men & boys realizes that they’ve been left and they need to figure out how to survive. Things are going well for this small group until, as the saga says, “death found them”.
A large unpiloted ship, filled with the smell of death and “men who have lost their shadows” washes ashore. These men bring disease and all of men start to become gravely ill and die horrible deaths. Hoping to keep the disease from the two young boys and save them, Old Carl, the de facto leader of Leif’s group, loads a large canoe the group has managed to create with supplies he’s able to gather quickly, and he pushes Leif and Little Carl (the little boy) out to sea, telling Leif to “go North… keep going North and never come back. Never come back to this place. Never.” And thus begins Leif’s journey to find himself and survive along what I can only believe takes place in Scandinavia, particularly the coast and fjords of northern Norway.
- The book doesn’t shy away from the grittiness of real life. The men are dying of cholera (we learn this in the author’s note) and that death is filled with constant vomit and diarrhea. Paulsen didn’t shy away from the descriptions of this. Fish and other animals are killed and gutted. The men are hunting whales and seals. Orca’s eat salmon… in the way that orcas are sometimes known to “play” with their food. It’s gritty.
- SPOILER (skip to #3 if you want to avoid this): The little boy placed in Leif’s care dies from the sickness (and Leif very nearly does, too). Leif very matter-of-factly cares for and buries the little boy’s body. But for a reader who has lost a parent or sibling or who has lost a child (if an adult reader), I can imagine that this book would be very difficult, especially because Leif fondly remembers the boy throughout the novel.
- Readers (particularly lower-level readers) may struggle with the saga/poetry interspersed throughout this novel. I LOVED it, but I could imagine a young teen reader instantly being turned off by the exposition of this story because it’s tricky to follow for someone who may not have really read or experienced poetry/sagas.
- This book is BEAUTIFUL. The descriptions of the world that Leif is experiencing are deep and filled with a musical, magical quality. It’s obvious to the reader that Paulsen experienced this world of being on the water in a northern/artic climate and that he must have had a great fondness for it.
- This is a novel that’s going to mean different things to you, depending on when you come to it. My theatre teacher in high school always said that the best plays could be revisited at different times in your life and they would have completely different meanings based on where you were in your growth, and I think this novel is definitely that kind of text. You could visit this as a pre-teen/teen and the book would have one meaning. Visit it again as a 20-something and the book would speak to you differently. As a 30-something who is a stay-at-home mom currently drifting a little, this book speaks differently again. I look forward to revisiting this one as a 50-something woman and seeing how it speaks to me then.
- The vast number of deep themes you could talk about in this book, man. I highlighted one phrases in the text that I thought summarized the book well:
“But you faced those things as they came and either were successful or you went to Valhalla. That simple. You lived or you died. And in between the two, if you kept your mind open and aware and listened and smelled and watched… In between you learned.” This book is about learning and finding yourself and a million other affirming messages and ideas. Mr. Paulsen will be truly missed – he crafted a beautiful final opus.