Gary Paulsen, author of young adult adventures, dies at 82
By Clay Risen
Gary Paulsen, a prolific writer whose young adult novels such as “Hatchet” and Dogsong” inspired generations of would-be adventurers with tales of survival, exploration and nature red in tooth and claw, died Wednesday at his home in Tularosa, New Mexico. He was 82.
His son, Jim, said the cause was cardiac arrest.
The author of some 200 books, Paulsen was frequently compared to Ernest Hemingway, as much for his sparse, efficient prose as for his subject matter: mankind’s violent collision with nature, often in situations in which a character, typically a teenage boy raised in urban comfort, has to learn to fend for himself in the wild.
In “Hatchet” (1987), perhaps his best-known book, a 13-year-old named Brian is the sole passenger on a small propeller plane headed from his home in New York City to visit his father in northern Canada. When the pilot has a heart attack and the plane crash-lands in a remote lake, Brian is left to survive for months, using only a small hatchet his mother gave him before he left.
“Hatchet” is “a classic,” said Daniel Gemeinhart, author of the young adult novel “The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise” (2019), who grew up reading Paulsen’s books. “A lot of books you read as a kid don’t stand up when you read them as an adult, but ‘Hatchet’ does.”
Paulsen won a Newbery Honor for “Hatchet,” as well as for “Dogsong” (1985), about an Inuit boy learning to dog-sled, and “The Winter Room” (1989), about Norwegian immigrants in northern Minnesota. His books have sold more than 35 million copies.
Not all of Paulsen’s books revolve around survival adventure. Some, such as “How to Train Your Dad,” which was published in September, are comic; others are historical fiction, such as “The Legend of Bass Reeves” (2006), which is based on the true story of an enslaved Black man who became a federal marshal. (His next book, “Northwind,” due in January, is a return to form, about a boy navigating the Pacific Northwest coastline in a canoe.)
Running through all his work, though, is a tone and language tempered to appeal to teenage readers without speaking down to them.
“Except perhaps for not being quite gross enough, Paulsen has mastered the very hard trick of sounding exactly like a 12-year-old without being either cute or condescending,” Charles McGrath, a former editor of The New York Times Book Review, wrote in that publication in 2007.
Part of what made Paulsen’s stories so compelling was that he drew them from his own adventure-packed life. The best writing, he often said, was “like carving pieces off your self.”
Gary James Paulsen was born May 17, 1939, in Minneapolis. His father, Oscar, was a career Army officer who soon left to serve on the staff of Gen. George S. Patton.
When Paulsen was 4, his mother, Eunice (Moen) Paulsen, moved with him to Chicago, where she got a job in an ammunition factory. An alcoholic with little apparent commitment to her husband, she would dress her son in a child-size soldier’s outfit and take him to bars, where she made him sing on tables as a way to get men to pay attention to her.
She could also be fiercely protective. Once he sneaked outside their apartment when she was sleeping. A man dragged him into an alley and began to molest him. Suddenly his mother appeared, beating and kicking the assailant into unconsciousness.
Eventually, her own mother forced her to send Paulsen to live with an aunt and uncle in northern Minnesota, where he learned to hunt, fish and live outdoors for long stretches.
A year later, though, his mother came to fetch him; his father, now stationed in the Philippines, had decided to stay there, and with the war ending, they were allowed to join him.
They boarded a liberty ship in San Francisco. In “Gone to the Woods,” a memoir published this year, Paulsen recalled how at one point the passengers watched in horror as a plane crash-landed nearby. As the plane’s passengers struggled in the water, a pack of sharks descended on them, pulling men and women and children below the water.
His family later returned to Minnesota, where his parents drank and fought constantly. To get away from them, Paulsen would take to the woods, exploring, hunting and trapping, or wander around their small town, Thief River Falls, near the Canadian border. He worked odd jobs, such as setting pins at a bowling alley and delivering newspapers, and used the money to buy his own school supplies as well as a .22-caliber rifle.
One day he ducked into a library to get warm. A librarian asked if he had a library card. When he said no, she gave him one, along with a Scripto notebook and a No. 2 pencil, with instructions to read everything he could and write down everything he thought.
“It’s hard to talk about it,” he said in an interview with NPR in April. “It was a card with my name on it. And, God, nobody had given me anything like that.”
When he was 14, he ran away and joined a carnival. He returned home just long enough to forge his father’s signature and join the Army.
The Army trained him in engineering, and he later tracked satellites for a government contractor at a facility in California. He also spent time in Los Angeles, writing dialogue for television shows such as “Mission: Impossible.”
All along, he had been reading and writing, and one day in 1965 he decided to try his hand at a novel. He moved back to Minnesota, where he rented a cabin and went to work.
For several years he wrote Westerns for adults under a pseudonym. He made just enough money to sustain a simple rural life, living off what he could grow and hunt.
In 1970, he married Ruth Wright Paulsen, an illustrator. She and his son survive him, as do two grandchildren.