Sam Gribley hates living in crowded New York City. Captivated by stories of his great-grandfather Gribley’s farm in the Catskills, he decides to head for his family land and make a go of it on his own. He studies up on wilderness survival at the library, and tells his parents he is leaving. Realizing there is little a father can do to stop a 12-year-old intent on “running away,” his father tells him he can go as long as he lets someone in the nearby town know his whereabouts. Buying a bus ticket with the money he saved from selling magazines, and armed only with a pocket knife, a ball of cord, an ax, some flint and steel and the clothes on his back Sam sets out to live off the land.
The book begins in the middle of Sam’s story – it is winter and he is snug in his “house” in a hollowed tree while a blizzard blows outdoors. He begins to reminisce about how he came to this location and his early efforts (failures and successes) to build a fire, capture or kill game, gather berries, etc. There are people in the woods – a game warden is attracted by the smoke from his fire, and deer-hunting season brings many hunters – but he mostly stays hidden and away from people. Still, the occasional visitor reminds Sam that he enjoys some human connection and social interaction.
Starting the book in the middle of Sam’s story removes some of the tension from the novel. The reader already knows he has survived and created a relatively comfortable situation for himself. Still, it’s interesting to learn about the uses for the many plants and animals in his surroundings. Who knew that the bark of slippery elm gets “soapy” when you rub it?! George also illustrated the book, and includes many drawings of wild plants which are edible or otherwise useful. I was reminded of the many lessons my father imparted on all those family camping outings when I was growing up.
I couldn’t help but compare this book to Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet - though Paulsen’s work was written nearly three decades after George’s work was published (1987 vs 1959). The major difference of course is that Sam Gribley chooses to go to the wilderness and prepares by reading and studying what he’ll need in order to live the simple life he craves, while Brian (Paulsen’s hero) is forced to survive when his plane goes down. Still both boys find within themselves reserves of strength, determination, inventiveness, and perseverance which help them deal with the very real issues of wilderness survival.
So why only 2.5 stars? I found the ending very disappointing. I felt it was contrived and the book lost a half-star for me because of that. I’m guessing that a young reader will react more favorably. I certainly see why it’s remained popular over the decades.