Book Review: Woods Runner by Gary Paulsen
Samuel, 13, must go deep into enemy territory to find his parents.
Narrator: Danny Campbell
Pages: 178 pages
Hours: 3 Hours 42 Minutes
Samuel, 13, spends his days in the forest, hunting for food for his family. He has grown up on the frontier of a British colony, America. Far from any town, or news of the war against the King that American patriots have begun near Boston.
But the war comes to them. British soldiers and Iroquois attack. Samuel’s parents are taken away, prisoners. Samuel follows, hiding, moving silently, determined to find a way to rescue them. Each day he confronts the enemy, and the tragedy and horror of this war. But he also discovers allies, men and women working secretly for the patriot cause. And he learns that he must go deep into enemy territory to find his parents: all the way to the British headquarters, New York City.
This story was short and singularly focused on a coming-of-age story for a 13-year-old boy who reached manhood at the cusp of the American Revolution. The story arc was a steady adventure through the time and space that was the frontier of the Colonial American War for Independence. There were tense moments that were age appropriate, but I wouldn’t call this an action-packed tale either. Overall, I think that this story was easy to follow and written for its target audience of young kids around the age of the main character.
I felt like the author, Gary Paulsen, gave the reader plenty of details to flesh out his novel. He mainly focused those details on setting the scene for readers, focusing on the surroundings. It was geared towards students who were just learning about this foundational era in American history. With that in mind, I felt like he described things that were age appropriate. He told us what the woods would've been like before urbanization and westward expansion had conquered North America. He described the dangers of everyday life in a way that was both entertaining and educational. I could definitely picture everything he described and so could my sons. More importantly, my boys are not as dialed into this era as I am. I needed to check my bias here and he passed.
The main character is a 13-year-old boy named Samuel Lehi Smith. He’s a child of his environment, the product of the wild Pennsylvania backwoods. His upbringing made him more at home in the untamed woods than he is among urban colonial life. He was very relatable and represented the “every-man” for the time and place where he was from. Samuel was just like the backwoodsmen I studied in graduate school when I studied Colonial American History. Well, except he was a kid and I tended to focus on the grown-ups who were the movers and shakers of their time. I felt like he was a good example for my 14 and 16-year-old sons, an aspirational goal of self-confidence and self-reliance.
Like many of the stories written for young readers, this story relied on the presence of an adult to help boost the educational value of this book. First, Gary Paulsen seemed to rely on a basic understanding of what life in this era was like. It was almost as if this book was intended to be read as part of a larger curriculum in a school setting. However, this wasn’t essential because it had plenty of inserts to explain the finer points that were glossed over in the actual narrative. Given that this book written for young kids with a bent towards education, I had no complaints with how the world building was handled. The author, Gary Paulsen, wrote this book in such a way as to intrigue young readers while being factually accurate. More on this one in the final review. The adult reader, that would be me, would've preferred a deeper exploration of the world, but I’m not the target audience. For what it was, I think the author did an outstanding job. The world was very flushed out, and I had no problems envisioning myself there. However, as I've previously mentioned, I study this in school, so I'm already dialed into this era.
While I read this book, and didn’t listen to the audiobook, I did check out the sample portion available on Audible. The narrator, Danny Campbell has a voice that was easy to listen too. I’d definitely give him a shot if he was narrating a book that I was interested in.
This was a fun book to read with my kids as we talked about the history of America. A nice romp through Colonial American with plenty of points that served as segues into larger themes. We delved into the nature of conflict and morality during times of strife. Even more importantly, we looked at how to be at one with your surroundings. It was also a lovely little coming of age story for young boys on the cusp of manhood. This last one was especially important for boys being raised in a digital age that labels all things masculine as toxic.
What I especially loved was that Gary Paulsen didn't sugar coat the horrors of warfare. While this book was age appropriate, no facet of the horrors of life for the colonialists was glossed over. We saw the brutality of the natives attacking the Europeans living on the colonial frontier. We also saw the cruelty of the Hessian troops as they senselessly slaughtered the locals, committing war crimes I didn't learn about until I studied the era in graduate school.
While it wasn't specifically covered in this novel, I choose to elaborate the narrative with other resources. I pointed out examples where the same tactics were employed by raiders fighting for the fledgling nation. I didn’t want to sugar coat what it took for America to be free, war is hell and soldiers on both sides made decisions that we would prefer they didn’t. While the Hessian mercenaries tipped the scales against the British on this one. This allowed us to pivot the discussions to how civilians fared during this multi-year conflict. I pulled in some of my own library of first-person accounts to help them understand things, though maybe I went overboard?
As we read this story, we had a neat talk about spying during the Colonial American War for Independence. We used one of the author's many factoid inserts as a way to talk about what James Bond would look like in the 1770s. We even conducted an experiment, making and using disappearing ink. We found this resource on the Mount Vernon Historical Site’s website. If you love learning, I think you should try this fun project with your pre-teen or teen kids.
Finally, I am too much of a history nerd to let this one slide. This book did have one inaccuracy that jumped out at me. The author has Samuel wearing “smoked buckskin clothing,” but this isn’t the most accurate. By 1750 a woods runner would’ve been wearing clothing made of wool, cotton, or linen such as the Native Americans wore. Finally, while I am not an expert on period weaponry, I doubt that he could down a bear with a lightweight .40-caliber rifle. In the narrative, he’d already done this on multiple occasions. It sounds like it would be too small of a round, but if you have real life experience on this one, please tell me how I got this part wrong. What stood out to me the most was the clothing because my graduate advisor was a stickler for those finer details.
Overall, the only real compliant I have is more of a caution to parents. This novel does have some darker points and addresses violence from the era. It wasn’t graphic, but it was something to consider. Bottom line, you know your kids, but I wouldn’t let readers below the age of 10 or so read this unsupervised. This wasn’t really a complaint, though, it was more of a word of caution. I didn’t find much not to love about Woods Runner, I’m sure you’ll reach the same conclusion in due time!
I will happily recommend this book to anyone, young or old! I highly recommend this adventure story so you should give it a read! Five Stars! This is a great book to read with your sons and daughters. Seriously, you won’t regret reading this one!
Until next time, stay frosty and don’t forget to keep your powder dry!
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A middling load would probably have a 90-ish grain lead ball moving at 1,500-ish fps, so 4-500 ftlbs of muzzle energy? That's in a .40 S&W-ish range, though with a lighter bullet. We're only talking black bears here, not brownies, a decently hard cast ball would likely do fine placed correctly.