Gary Paulsen does not merely write adventure stories; he has lived them. He seems to deeply regret the reluctance of his body to continue sled dog racing. Regarding the Iditarod: “it’s a sort of primitive exaltation. It’s amazing what you and the dogs become.” Even as he described the antelope in the pasture next to his car and the dreams of his pound dog companion, Paulsen’s mind travelled northward to Alaska and his beloved sled dogs. “They get to live their lives out as pets. I miss the bush in Alaska, but if you’re not running dogs, the dark is not intrinsically fun.” He calls the Iditarod “the maximum expression of dog sledding,” and speaks wistfully of his desire to sail around Cape Horn, an endeavor he calls “the maximum expression of sailing.” He goes on to talk about Magellan’s exploits and how, though Magellan was a religious man, his rounding of Cape Horn jump started the Renaissance. “It blew away some of the Church’s control over the world.” Gary Paulsen is not a man with a fondness for established hierarchy.
In addition to his palpable disdain for George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (he did have some praise for Benjamin Franklin), he spoke of his time in the Army – “3 years, 8 months, 21 days, and 9 hours” – with little fondness. “There are people over you who can kill you who can barely think.” He conceded that “you need that discipline, but it gets old.” Then, his voice grew faint as his thoughts drifted back to the young soldiers of the Revolutionary War – perhaps of any war – “and again, they stood to.”
Throughout a meandering conversation that took us through anecdotes about the harvesting of bear grease, rushing to a television interview covered in blood from cutting meat for his sled dogs, the peculiarly aggressive breed of rattlesnake that inhabits the pasture adjacent to his car, and various celebrity figures (Paulsen has little use for television and news media, and seems astonished by our culture of celebrity), he returned always to the plight of the young. When asked what story hadn’t he told, he paused incrementally, “huh, I’ve never been asked that.” However, the question did not set him back long. In the next breath, he said “I haven’t written, but I think I should write…the book I’m thinking of is called The Day They Hang the Children.”
My gulp may have been audible. He went on to explain that England had once had a special day to hang children, due to the need to readjust the gallows. Since any property crime such as theft, even pickpocketing (think Dickens) was a capital offense, this special day was needed, and used. He continued to explain his desire to tie the horrors of this custom to child labor in pre-20th century England and to the abuses of children worldwide today. “I’ll probably write it someday; it’s like an itch that needs scratching.”