The collective American perception of the Revolutionary War, and the one we pass to our children, tends to resemble a synopsis of Return of the Jedi: a scrappy band of rebels, devoted to their cause, rises up against an evil Empire; in the end the rebels prevail, the Empire is defeated, and there are fireworks. In reality, the war lasted eight years; word of the revolution spread slowly through the colonies, carried on foot and confusing many; and instead of fireworks, there was dysentery.
Master storyteller Gary Paulsen has written a novel designed to shake American perceptions of the founding of our country and to deepen the respect for the sacrifices and courage of those who dared to defy the most powerful military force in the world. In his author’s note to Woods Runner, Paulsen states:
I wrote Woods Runner because I wanted the Revolutionary War to be seen in its reality. I wanted to dispute the mythic, clean, even antiseptic qualities in many histories, because war is never, not ever clean. The people of the United States have had patriotic blinders on for so long about that gut-wrenching war, which killed or maimed a huge number of our nation’s young men, as did Vietnam and World War I. As do all wars. Of course, there’s much to be proud of in terms of the outcome of the Revolution, but the reality of fighting this war was horrifying. Our independence was hard-won, paid for with the blood of innocent, and very young, people. Too many lives were lost or destroyed during the battles.
In Woods Runner Paulsen has crafted a tale that manages to be thrilling, shocking, informative, poignant, and hopeful at the same time. The story of 13-year-old Samuel Lehi Smith is told with tension, passion, and a note of admiration. The title hearkens back to the French courier du bois for one who ran through, and who was of, the forest. “He was not sure exactly when he became a child of the forest. One day it seemed he was eleven and playing in the dirt around the cabin or helping with the chores, and the next, he was thirteen, carrying a .40-caliber Pennsylvania flintlock rifle, wearing smoked-buckskin clothing and moccasins, moving through the woods like a knife through water while he tracked deer to bring home to the cabin for meat.”
Paulsen imbues his writing with the sensory sensitivity of one who has spent a lifetime in the wilderness. Readers are guided through the forest with an acute awareness of every sound, sight, and scent, an awareness that somehow heightens both the sense of peaceful solitude and the anticipation of action.
This dichotomy of nature, the paradoxical presence of both serenity and danger in the same environment, becomes reflected in a horribly inverted form in the descriptions of the war, where extraordinary brutality and extraordinary courage stand side by side. Samuel’s peaceful existence in a world in which he roams the forest with impunity, providing for his intellectual but impractical parents, is cast to the winds one day with the clouds of smoke he views from a ridgeline. “He frowned, looking at the smoke, willing it not to be what was coming into his mind like a dark snake, a slithering horror. Some kind of attack. No. He shook his head.” Samuel runs back through the forest in the direction of the smoke, the direction of his home. “Samuel smelled it before he saw anything. Not just the smoke from the fires. But the thick, heavy smell. Blood. Death.”
Samuel’s family cabin and the cabins of the surrounding settlement have been razed to the ground. In the dimness of twilight, Samuel finds body after body, horribly mutilated adults and children. Here Paulsen first dives into the gritty horrors of war. There is nothing adventurous or romantically thrilling about the war dead. “They did not look like they had been people. What he found seemed more like trash, paper and cloth blown across the ground. But they were people, friends and families he had known.”
As Samuel races from one corpse to the next, he fails to find those he most dreaded finding. “No matter how fast he ran, how wide he ran, he did not find his parents. Along with six or seven others, they had not been killed, or at least had not been killed here.” After digging the graves of each of his neighbors – a 13-year-old boy, alone with a shovel in the darkness of early evening – Samuel rests to begin his trek at dawn – a quest to find his parents, a journey that will take him to New York City, held by the British, and where the American prisoners of war were interred.
Between chapters, Paulsen intersperses one to two page essays containing factual accounts of the world, customs, weapons, and life at the time of the Revolutionary War. These essays, while breaking the narrative tension, serve to illustrate the world in which Samuel lived and travelled. “At that time, there was only one prison in New York, so the British held their prisoners in warehouse buildings or on Royal Navy ships anchored in the harbor. Although these ships were built to hold 350 sailors, the British kept over one thousand prisoners at a time on board. The only latrines were buckets, which soon became full and spilled into the prisoners’ sleeping quarters.”
Paulsen addresses not only the brutal violence of war, but the issues of disease and sanitation. He answers with disturbing realism the question of every twelve-year-old – what do they do when they have to go to the bathroom. From his depictions of changing bundles of fresh grass from beneath an unconscious patient to the tragic death of a beloved character “streaming with dysentery over a slit trench in an agony of jabbering delirium, killed by dehydration,” Paulsen’s images of the dirt and violence of war are anything but “antiseptic.”
If Samuel in his solitary self-reliance is the body and mind of Woods Runner, the characters he encounters along his journey bring forth the heart and soul. After Samuel is knocked unconscious in an early attempt to free his parents, he is taken in by a group on their way to join a Special Rangers force known as Morgan’s Rifles. Samuel’s nurse in this endeavor is “John. John Cooper, but most just call me Coop.” Coop is warm-hearted, blunt-spoken, rough, and delightfully colorful. “I’m the night watch tonight, plus I’ve been doctoring you and I thought you might lose your light during the night. You been breathing like an old pump. I guess you was just sucking air hard because you didn’t die. Course it could still happen. I had a cousin go kicked in the head by a mule – they’s fractious, mules – and he lived for nigh on two months ‘fore he lost his light. He never talked none except now and again a kind of moan – like somebody stepping on a duck.” I can’t help it; I love Coop. Anyone who can treat an abscessing head wound with a “spit and ‘baccy poultice” and raw affection is hard not to love.
While Samuel must part ways with the riflemen, he collects others along his journey. Notable among these are little Annie Clark and Abner McDougal. Samuel first meets Annie on her parents’ farm where he is battling his hunger in an attempt to justify stealing one of her family’s chickens. Annie has no problem with the two-legged fox in her yard. “Take that big red one. She’s mean. Chases me all over the yard and pecks at my toes.” Annie’s openheartedness derives directly from that of her parents who, upon catching Samuel, feed rather than scold him. The palpable warmth and comfort of the Clark farmhouse make the brutal murder of Annie’s parents by Hessian soldiers all the more shocking. Unable to leave the defenseless little girl behind, Samuel brings Annie along on his journey, or, more accurately, she adopts him.
Abner McDougal, ostensibly a Scottish travelling tinker, has greater resources than the average vagrant, and it soon becomes obvious that his connections to the war run deeper than is outwardly apparent. Abner shuttles information between members of the American forces. “’You’re a spy?’ ‘No, no, that’s too hard a word. Though I ‘spect these redcoats would hang me proper if they knew…I can’t really fight – my bones would break. But if I help those who are against the redcoats, it’s right close to fighting.’”
From fast-paced action to intriguing characters, Paulsen has created an adventure woven with the fabric of a nation and dyed with the blood of its people. Woods Runner excites and entertains, yes, but it also gives the reader pause, forcing one to think – truly think – about the price of war. Paulsen’s passion for this book shone in his voice in a recent interview, and it resonates through his writing. Woods Runner is destined to become required reading for young adults, bringing reality to the internet generation.