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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Classic: My Side of the Mountain (Why did kids love this book?)

      George, Jean (1959) My Side of the Mountain New York:  Dutton.

     As part of my quest to eventually read all of the Newbery Honor and medal books back to the beginning of time, I recently picked up My Side of the Mountain.  Somehow I must have dodged and weaved my way through school in such a way that no one ever put this book in my hands.  I know plenty of adults, though, who speak of this book with great fondness.  So I decided to see if I could figure out what all the fuss was about.
     It isn't the plot.  In fact, there doesn't seem to be much of a plot.  This is the story of a boy who runs away and returns to the land on the side of a mountain that his grandfather once farmed.  He manages to find shelter and food, befriend several animals, and keep himself from being caught by the occasional person wandering in the woods.  Then at the end, he goes home.  That is pretty much it.  No real life threatening moments (though he did get kind of scared during a snowstorm.  No moment when he or someone he knows is in great peril.  No quest, no puzzle, no journey, no voyage of self-discovery.  Nothing much at all.
     And it isn't the characters.  Sam is a good kid and you root for him.  And his woodland animal friends are interesting, but they aren't exactly characters.  He interacts with a few people here and there, but there are no amazing friendships, interesting sidekicks, clever conversationalists, amazing team-ups, or dynamic duos here.  It is pretty much the kid.
     And it isn't the remarkable stylistic beauty of George's writing.  Oh, it is fine. She makes it easy to picture things in one's head.  But there are no moments in this book where you need to grad a pen and copy down a quote because it perfectly sums up something you had long felt was right but had never been able to put into words until that moment.  Nope.  It is just competent storytelling. 
     And it isn't that there are themes here that resonate with a deep inner sense you have about the nature of what the universe is really like, or what it ought to be like.  In fact, I would be hard pressed to think of a theme that this book connects to -- maybe some sort of naturalistic individualism?  Other books do that better though
     So what is that makes this book so great?

     Honestly, I don't know, except that I think it might be an example of "The Boxcar Effect".  I loved the Boxcar Children series when I was young (you probably did too).  When I read those as an adult, I was surprised at the one-dimensionality of the characters and the predictability of the plots.  But of course, that wasn't why I loved the boxcar children.  I loved them because...(wait for it)... THEY LIVED IN A BOXCAR!  And so when I read those books as a kid, I imagined how cool it would be to have a whole boxcar to myself -- to build shelves in it and dig in a creek until I could make a swimming hole and a place to store food underwater so it would be cold, and so on.  The point of those books was not the story or the characters, it was the imagination that the book opened up in me.
     I think the same thing is true of My Side of the Mountain.  Sam builds himself a house inside of a hollow tree.  He makes a stove out of clay from a riverbank and makes himself clothes out of a deer skin that he scavenges from a hunter who loses track of the deer he shoots.  Sam has a trained hawk as a watchdog and no one to tell him when it is time for bed or what to eat or that he ought to brush his teeth.  And so it isn't really what George does with the story -- it is much more a matter of what I or you or any other reader can do with the set up in his or her own mind.  What makes this book work is the imagination we bring to it.
      Which I suppose is what makes every good book work, now that I think about it.

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