Books

Gary Paulsen, who wrote the beloved young-adult novel ‘Hatchet’ and ran the Iditarod, dies at 82

ST. PAUL, Minnesota — Gary Paulsen, who inspired generations of young readers with novels about the beauty, wonder and danger of the wilderness - most notably “Hatchet,” about a boy who learns to survive on his own in the Canadian bush - while drawing on his own adventures as a sled-dog racer and restless outdoorsman, died Oct. 13 at his home in New Mexico. He was 82.

Paulsen was one of the most honored writers of contemporary literature for young people, praised for his clear prose and exciting tales of adventure such as “Hatchet,” a 1986 novel about a boy who survives a plane crash and learns to survive challenges of nature. It has sold more than 4.5 million copies.

Author of more than 200 books for adults and young people, Paulsen won the American Library Association’s prestigious Newbery Honors for “Dogsong,” “Hatchet” and " The Winter Room.” In 1997 he won the ALA’s Margaret Edwards Award for a body of work that made “significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature.”

“Gary’s books continue to sell steadily and constantly,” said Holly Weinkauf, owner of the Red Balloon on St. Paul’s Grand Avenue. “He was one of the first to write outdoor adventure stories that appeal to kids who don’t think of themselves as readers but are drawn to these kinds of books.”

His memoir for middle-grade readers, “Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Lost Childhood,” was published in January. It told of how the author coped with his parents’ alcoholism by going to the woods and the library.

It’s safe to say that there would not have been “Hatchet” and Paulsen’s other young adult books if he had not lived in northern Minnesota. That was obvious during a 1996 interview he did with the Pioneer Press from his ranch in New Mexico when “Brian’s Winter,” a sequel to “Hatchet,” was published.

For “Brian’s Winter,” he drew on his own wilderness experiences in Minnesota and Canada to describe how 13-year-old Brian copes with a savage winter after surviving a plane crash by sewing a tunic from rabbit fur and fashioning a flint-tipped spear to protect himself.

“Oh, I’ve seen a lot of winter,” said Paulsen, who ran 15 sled dogs when he lived in Becida, north of Bemidji. “Like Brian, I’ve hunted with a bow, been attacked by moose, dealt with cold so severe the trees exploded. Because I write about real things, people sense truth in my work. I just tell the story. i don’t try to put in hidden meanings or crank it up with messages. ... A lot of young-adult books talk down to kids. I go to schools and meet with kids. I’ve found they’re smarter than lots of adults, and they’re honest.”

Paulsen’s own childhood was hard, he admitted. His parents were alcoholics so he spent much of the time living with his uncles in northern Minnesota where, he joked “everybody north of Bemidji is related to me.”

After barely graduating from Thief River Falls high school, he served in the Army, worked for a men’s magazine in California (a job he got by concocting a false resume), and finally returned to Minnesota to “hole up in a cabin” and write his first published book, “Some Birds Don’t Fly.” But alcohol took precedence over writing, and he spent much of the early 1970s drunk in New Mexico.

When he found sobriety in the 1970s he was broke, so he moved back to northern Minnesota with his wife, artist Ruth Wright Paulsen, and their son Jim. They lived in an unheated former bus garage with no plumbing and a door so loose snow drifted in.

Using an old sled and four borrowed dogs, Paulsen began running a 20-mile trap line. “I’d be out on seven-day runs, sleeping on the sled,” he recalled in a 1992 Pioneer Press interview. “I became less and less enamored of trapping and killing. My dogs had lives, and so did the animals I trapped. I quit, but I told everybody I was still trapping.”

Paulsen and his dogs thrice ran the grueling, 1,100-mile Iditarod race across Alaska. His first race in 1983 took him 17½ days to complete, an experience that he chronicled in his memoir “Winterdance” (1994), which was adapted into the Disney movie “Snow Dogs” (2002) with Cuba Gooding Jr.

During the second race in 1985, he and his team were caught on the Bering Sea in winds so strong the dogs were blown right into the air. A plane had to lift them off the ice, and they didn’t finish the course. He scratched in 2006 in Skwentna.

After a severe heart attack in 1989, Paulsen and Ruth moved to New Mexico, where he hoped to live as simply as possible.

“The more successful I become, the less successful I feel,” Paulsen admitted. “I have a pickup, a modest house. I’d like to wean myself of everything, live with one spoon, one bowl, and concentrate on art.”

In a prescient comment, Paulsen lamented that the connection to nature he experienced in the North Woods is nearly lost to many city-dwellers.

“We are right on the edge of serious disaster with Ebola, AIDS, viruses that are a function of nature,” he said. “People have forgotten that ‘man proposes but nature disposes.’ We have technology and lots of pretty stuff, but a microbe can kill us. It’s part of our attempt not to be natural, our almost concerted attempt to elevate one species (humans) above nature.”

Washington Post reporting is included in this article.

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