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my side of the mountain

1 march 2014

A strong theme in 20th-century American children's literature is that red-blooded white Americans of pioneer stock, however cooped up in cities and etiolated by cultural frivolity, can always pick up and hack their way into wholeness by striking out for the wilderness. With a penknife, some gritty resolve, and some instructions cribbed from the stacks of your local public library, you can go out and tame a corner of wilderness. Even generations of being cooped up in city or suburb can't dampen the native competence of the American Kid, who sees Mother Nature herself as a sort of white man's burden to be taken up and flung over his shoulder.

Jean Craighead George's Newbery Honor book for 1960, My Side of the Mountain, is the epitome of this narrative of pluck in the great outdoors. Our hero and narrator is Sam Gribley, an New Yorker of old white pioneer stock but indeterminate socioeconomic status. Having been taught from the cradle that Gribleys of old used to farm land in the Catskills, Sam decides that he'll wander into said mountains and live off the land for a while. Everyone seems to think this is a fine idea, on par with going to soccer camp. Sam wanders into unpopulated country with little equipment and less clue. Within days he's rendering salt from birchbark and taming peregrine falcons. He burns himself a home in an old hollow tree and tans deerhide for his clothing and his falcon's jesses.

George makes wilderness survival seem considerably easier than hopping a crosstown bus. Of course, young Sam isn't completely alone. Various people appear from time to time to hang out, including Sam's own father, who seems to have a lot invested in extreme survivalism as a rite of pre-adolescence. There are some minor blocking characters in the persons of forest rangers. There are even paparazzi:

"Let's face it, Thoreau; you can't live in America today and be quietly different. If you are going to be different, you are going to stand out, and people are going to hear about you; and in your case, if they hear about you, they will remove you to the city or move to you and you won't be different any more." (168)
The novel is illustrated with George's energetic line drawings. It's got panache and it's not self-conscious, but it has dated badly when some of its near-contemporaries, like The Witch of Blackbird Pond or A Wrinkle in Time, seem barely to have dated at all.

George, Jean Craighead. My Side of the Mountain. 1959. New York: Puffin [Penguin], 1991.