Read Like a Wolf Eats: An Appreciation of Gary Paulsen

Bruce Coffey, Jr.

“You lived or you died… And in between you learned.”

Northwind, pp. 196

The prolific writer Gary Paulsen left us in October of 2021. The author of more than 200 books, Paulsen touched thousands of young readers’ lives. The testament of upper elementary school teachers across the country affirms that Paulsen also ignited the spark that inspired thousands of children to become readers. The book that was probably most responsible for this oh so well-earned reputation, is Hatchet, published in 1987.  It was the first of three Paulsen books to earn a Newbery Honor, and it spawned four sequels.


The success and influence of Hatchet earned Paulsen the reputation as an outdoor survival author, an expert on coming of age stories that used the wilderness to tease out protagonist’s inner strengths and capabilities while helping them grow. Paulsen wrote many other books, personal tales of living hardy in the north, non-fiction accounts of his time with dogs, racing the Iditarod, sailing in the northwest, culminating in his final memoir, Gone to the Woods (2021), and his final novel, Northwind (2022). 


All he did to dispel this idea of being pigeonholed was write a hundred other books, an impossible range of books: how to sports guides, humorous road trip novels, western romps, and even a stab at science fiction. Do you remember, The White Fox Chronicles (2000), a young boy navigating a dystopian future? Woods Runner (2010), a young boy in frontier America traverses the delicate allegiances on the eve of the American Revolution? How about Nightjohn (1993), the searing account of a scarred and escaped slave, who lives to save another young slave from the same fate?  

Paulsen led a difficult, peripatetic childhood. His parents were absent or ineffective. He claims the greatest positive influence was his grandmother, and he even wrote a trio of fictional accounts of a young boy in the north (The CookCamp, The Quilt, Alida’s Song) to honor her. But to his readers, his greatest debt was to an unnamed librarian who helped Paulsen find refuge in the library, who performed the critical role of offering him something to read, who got him a library card, and suggested what he read next. It was like giving bread to a starving man, oxygen to a suffocating man—Paulsen became not only a reader, but the writer we honor now.


Paulsen remained grateful his entire life. He never stopped writing and he never stopped thanking her. He lived a life that demonstrated his thanks. He spoke in front of countless schools and youthful audiences, gave interviews in print and radio, and he developed a simple mantra, to distill his message and inspire writers of the future. His favorite line was: “Read like a wolf eats.” But no less important was “Read every day. Every day. No exceptions.” And the corollary, if you want to be a writer, “Write every day. Every day. No exceptions.”


I think he fell in love with and settled on “Read Life a Wolf Eats” because it so perfectly distills and represents Paulsen’s ethic and his style. The command to read, unvarnished, unembarrassed, voraciously; the evocative brevity; and the use of an image, a symbol, a simile from the natural world. Paulsen was unrelenting and unforgiving. Recall his message from Hatchet’s Brian Robeson: “Feeling sorry for yourself doesn’t work.” He doesn’t want to hear any excuses. Paulsen’s life was one of overcoming and then doing, never stop doing. Whether that’s reading or writing or just plain living, that’s a mantra any parent or teacher – or student – will want to discover and hold onto. Let’s put it in libraries! Let’s put it on bumper stickers! Read Like a Wolf Eats.

“You’re never lost when you can see the sun and the stars and the moon.”

Tracker, pp. 70-71


The back of the jacket copy on many of the Scholastic editions of his books describes Gary Paulsen as “the master of the survival story.” I used to think this was pigeon-holing Paulsen, trying to hawk copies of Hatchet, his best known and beloved work, but too narrowly limiting a future reader’s imagination of what Gary Paulsen riches awaited if and when they looked. But now I know that not only is Gary Paulsen more than Hatchet, more than tales of the outdoors and hunting and tracking and dog-sledding. Paulsen is in fact the master of survival – psychological, emotional, and vocational survival. The range of his books present characters managing a range of privations – not just the outdoor elements of survival. They also present all manner of small, detailed, pointillist strategies to manage life’s challenges. Gary Paulsen’s guide to survival is not just how to build a fire, it’s no less than a guide to appreciating life, starting with the small things.


In Tracker, young John Borne, having lost his parents in a plane crash, is faced with the imminent death of his grandfather, who has helped raise him and taught him all he knows in his few short years. His grandfather fought the Japanese during WWII, but was also there for the occupation, and Paulsen tells us that the young Clay Borne actually came to appreciate the Japanese, “to love them and the beauty they see in things and the way they see the beauty.” (p. 13) As a great writer, Gary Paulsen’s whole corpus helps us see the beauty.

“[B]ecause it seemed important to know how to take many things that aren’t so good and make one good thing with them.”

The Cookcamp, p. 46

Think of his young characters’ relish for simple food, simply prepared, but oh so necessary and sustaining. A fresh glass of milk and sandwich on hard bread on the train. His first simple meal in the north…

“How about a thick slice of fresh bread with honey and a glass of milk?”

But what he ate wasn’t regular bread with honey and milk. It was warm fresh bread cut in a slice as thick…as thick as the side of his hands one on top of another, coated with grit-salty butter and a complete covering layer of honey just gone to sugar crystals from a jar on the shelf next to the stove, and a glass of milk so thick with cream it could almost be chewed…

He took one huge bite and thought about God….

Gone to the Woods, p. 50


The wonders of condensed milk in The Cookcamp in Minnesota. The magic of apple pie, taking the “many things that aren’t so good (to) make one good thing out of them.” (p. 46) Godsends. 

There’s a delightful, unexpected epiphany in Harris and Me (1993), a largely comic take of a city kid’s summer with his wise-cracking cousin on a farm in the country. They’re a little bit like Tom and Huck, and most of their adventures teach learn-by-doing lessons (as in, don’t do that!). At one point, Harris shows the narrator how they use a team of horses to mow the fields, but the most interesting (and remunerative) aspect of this task turns out to be their opportunity to walk behind the mower and catch the mice that are turned up in the alfalfa. Harris tells him that the weird old codger they eat their meals with, Louie, will pay them a half-penny per mouse. (The novel is set in the 1940s.) And then we find out why. 


Weird old Louie is a master miniature craftsman and has created an entire wooden replica of a northern logging camp, complete with “hundreds of little men working at different aspects of logging.” Many of the figures are wearing winter coats. The mice provide the winter coats. This bizarre anecdote, out of left field, may strike modern sensibilities a little sensitively, but many of Paulsen’s books are set amid people who live in rural settings with a traditional view of livestock and the animals in nature. For my part, that little logging camp is a distillation of Gary Paulsen, the pointillist master, who pulls the curtain to reveal the pride and craftsmanship, the talent and the joy, of the heretofore indecipherable Louie. A quiet moment in a comic frenzy and an example of Paulsen’s skill at taking us places (and times) we may not be used to and delighting readers with the details – their purpose, their function, and their founts of joy.


For some people, Hatchet ends too soon. Late in the book, a tornado reveals the little plane that had crashed in the lake, and Brian goes to great lengths to build a raft so he can make his way to the plane and harvest the supplies inside, especially the survival pack and the trove of freeze-dried food. At first he is overjoyed, but when he gets his horde on shore, he begins to feel ambivalent. “The pack was wonderful. But it gave him up and down feelings.” After all, hasn’t he taught himself to build tools, to fish, and trap and hunt? And just then… he’s rescued. We’re happy for him, but in our hearts we also lament the end of his adventure, of having to use his own wits and tenacity and grit to survive. He gave us sequels, but I think Paulsen secretly hoped that readers, too, might challenge themselves to see how they could get along without life’s conveniences. And I think plenty of readers have wrestled with that tension, too.


I’d go further and say that Gary Paulsen’s life, his career, his works, embody the crucial lessons of Victor Frankl, who survived the Holocaust and wrote of Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), and how to create meaning in one’s life by confronting suffering and privation with dignity and optimism. Brian Robeson and John Borne and Samuel Lehi Smith (in The Woodsrunner) and Gary Paulsen himself all learned and discovered and showed us how to make something beautiful – a fire, a book, a life – out of the many things that aren’t so good.

“Patience, he thought. So much of this was patience—waiting and thinking and doing things right. So much of all living was patience and thinking.”

Hatchet, p. 150


Paulsen memorialized his own life, his own struggles, his own survival, in countless ways. His own youthful challenges are the subject of a score of books, especially the three little books memorializing his grandmother. His penultimate book, aimed at a broad audience of youthful readers, Gone to the Woods, takes up this very subject – describing what is what like to dance on tables in bars for pocket change under his mother’s supervision; the critical train journey to the north and his grandmother’s care; the novelty and responsibility, the balm and rewarding life he found there; the epic trip to the Philippines to meet his father at the end of World War II; and finally his deliverance at the hands of a kindly, sympathetic, perceptive librarian just doing her job. 


Interestingly, Paulsen had written at length about all of this, especially the most harrowing stuff, in a memoir for adults, Eastern Sun, Winter Moon, published in 1993. That stuff never really left his system. In many ways, Paulsen was dealing with it, managing his psychological demons, turning it into art for children, over the course of his whole life as a professional writer. It’s there in the Scandinavian characters from The Winter Room (Newbery Honor, 1990) chopping wood and telling stories from the homeland. Paulsen repeatedly said of Hatchet and Brian Robeson that while he made it up, it is certainly inspired by his own experiences as a youth in the woods, figuring it out as he went along.

“Brian stood at the end of the long part of the L of the lake and watched the water, smelled the water, listened to the water, was the water.”


Hatchet, p. 122

Paulsen’s final book, the novel, Northwind, published just last year, can be read as an homage to Brian Robeson, transposed into a new environment; or to Russell Susskit, the hero of Dogsong (Newbery Honor, 1986) who goes on his own vision quest in the Alaskan north; or really, to Paulsen’s own life. As famed as his time with sled dogs and racing the Iditarod is (memorialized in one of my favorite Paulsen’s books, full of some of his most lyrical writing, Woodsong, 1990), Paulsen loved sailing just as much. In his early days, writing to survive, he wrote sailing guides. He wrote a quick novel, The Voyage of the Dog (1989), which reads like Brian or Gary, this time in the person of David Alspeth, trying to survive a solo cruise off Catalina Island, when a storm comes up.


In Leif’s journey, all the Paulsen hallmarks are there. After much trial and error, Leif is able to move beyond eating berries (like Brian) when he catches, kills, cleans, and cooks his own first salmon: “He had never tasted anything so wonderful. It was like pouring something new inside his body…. The meat was oily with fat and he could feel the grease move into his arms and legs and chest like rich soft fire.” (pp. 74-75) After watching a pod of Orca whales cavort and play on a pebble beach at low tide, he then watches the same pod hunt and trap salmon in a shallow inlet, a feeding frenzy that yields the conclusive epiphany: “Pure raw hunger was the driving force of everything in nature.” (p. 107) After marveling at the various scavenger birds that follow in the hunters’ wake, including his own, Leif ends up personalizing his relationship with a paternal Orca standing sentinel over his pod’s young, and the sole raven who travels on the prow of his dugout canoe. Ultimately, Leif learns and grows just like Brian: “He was learning… He was learning to learn; knowing more… [H]e wasn’t bigger. But he was still more in some way.” And “…what was really different. He had found joy.” (pp. 178-179)


Northwind takes all of these strains and gives us Leif, a youth who escapes a cholera attack and the decimation of the settlement he has known as home, and makes his way north, buoyed by the lore of his people, and with all the curious and hardy skills of Paulsen protagonists, prone to mistakes, but also able to discover, not only the power within himself, but also to appreciate the wonders of the natural world that fortified and buoyed Paulsen himself.


Let us give thanks to the rich work of Gary Paulsen, a treasure trove, an entire library bookshelf of books, a legacy that has shown two generations the way, and, given that so much of his work remains in print, that will continue to find and show new readers, too. He has shown us how to find joy. To find joy in snow and wolves and condensed milk and sardines and the equipment on a boat and what it means to solve problems by yourself; to grow and learn, to appreciate the details, and share them with others…. 

Thank you, Gary Paulsen, for reading like a wolf. And for writing every day.


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