Gone to the Woods Surviving a Lost Childhood

gone to the woods by gary paulsen

A mesmerizing memoir from a living literary legend, giving readers a new perspective on the origins of Gary Paulsen's famed survival stories.

His name is synonymous with high-stakes wilderness survival stories. Now, beloved author Gary Paulsen portrays a series of life-altering moments from his turbulent childhood as his own original survival story. If not for his summer escape from a shockingly neglectful Chicago upbringing to a North Woods homestead at age five, there never would have been a Hatchet. Without the encouragement of the librarian who handed him his first book at age thirteen, he may never have become a reader. And without his desperate teenage enlistment in the Army, he would not have discovered his true calling as a storyteller.

A moving and enthralling story of grit and growing up, Gone to the Woods is perfect for newcomers to the voice and lifelong fans alike, from the acclaimed author at his rawest and realest.---from the publisher

368 pages                    978-0374314156                 Ages 9-13

Keywords:  memoir, autobiography, dysfunctional family, healing, grit, growing up, survival, abuse, 9 year old, 10 year old, 11 year old, 12 year old, 13 year old


Sit beside a mountain stream. See her waters rise.

Listen to the pretty sound of music as she flies”

-- Lennon & McCartney, “Mother Nature’s Son” (1968)


As a little kid, Gary Paulsen learned to love the woods. Later, he learned to love the library. Thanks, in good measure, to a public librarian, he was inspired to become a writer.


“When he returned the book, she could tell he was a little troubled and she asked what he was thinking. He hadn’t meant to, but he found himself telling her about how the book had made some brain-pictures come out of compartments that he didn’t always want out in the open. He told her how he’d lived in Manila for three years when he was a kid and had seen things that he hadn’t talked about.

‘What kind of things?’

‘Dust,’ he said. ‘Heat and dust and noise. Terrible noise. I heard gunfire almost every night in Manila when machine guns would start firing. So fast it was like a giant piece of cloth being ripped. Must have been the same at the Little Bighorn.’

And for a moment he thought she was going to ask another question, push him to talk when he didn’t like talking.

But instead she reached under the countertop and brought out a pocket notebook, which she set in front of him. Then she reached down again and came up with a brand-new yellow number-two wooden pencil. She put it in the sharpener and cranked the handle and then set the sharpened pencil on the notebook and looked at him.

‘What’s this,’ he asked.

‘It’s for you.’

‘For school?’ He started to suspect a gimmick again--all this was to get him back in school. They kept catching him and making him come back, but he’d wait until they weren’t looking and scratch gravel. Be gone. He wasn’t going to fall for that just because of a nice smile. No thanks.

‘No,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘It works two ways. You can read and get mind-pictures, which is interesting. And important. But there’s the other thing. You can see things, do things, learn things on your own, and see if you can write them down to make mind-pictures for other people to see. To understand. To know. To know you…’

‘Who?’ Who would ever want to see his private word-pictures? Or understand him or know him--an ugly kid with bad hair, old clothes, no money. Just nobody. A wrong kid in the wrong place with the wrong people at the wrong time doing all the wrong things. Who would even care about him and what he had to write?

‘Who?’ he repeated. ‘Write it down for who?’

‘Well…’ She hesitated. Looking up at the windows a second. Up into the gold light. Then back down to him.

‘Well, me, for instance. You could show it to me.’

Stopped him cold.”

GONE TO THE WOODS is an episodic memoir packed with riveting and often horrifying tales of a childhood that you wouldn’t wish on anyone. It begins when Paulsen is preschool age. Born amidst the opening strains of WWII, the author doesn’t meet his dad until he is seven. His father is overseas in the Army. Meanwhile, his mother brings home a string of “uncles.”

During his preschool years, Gary is brought into bars by his attractive, alcoholic mother, a munitions plant worker. He is expected to sing and dance, a la little Shirley Temple, in order to attract male attention to his mother. He is rescued from this early show biz career by his grandmother, who insists that his mother send him by train up to the woods in Minnesota to be raised properly by relatives.

Settling into a house, deep in the woods, with his Aunt Edy and Uncle Sig, he is loved and mentored and becomes accustomed to an idyllic family life of self-sufficiency--fishing, farming, and gathering--in which he plays a full and enthusiastic role. Then, when it seems like nothing can make his life more perfect, his mother shows up to take him away.

I was entranced by the “word-pictures” of Gary’s time with Edy and Sig. I spent the rest of the book wondering whether he would ever get to return to his all-too-brief happy childhood in the woods. If he ever saw them again, he doesn’t recount it here.

After departing Edy and Sig’s place, Gary and his mother travel by train and then ship to the Philippines where Gary's father is stationed. The boat ride there is a doozy. So are his years in Manila. Back in the States, he must fend for himself. doing what he can to avoid his drunken, abusive, ever-battling parents.

Thanks to that inspirational librarian, Paulsen would grow up to become a writer, win three Newbery Honors, and a Margaret Edwards lifetime achievement award. But that would come later. Here, we learn the gritty, true-life survival story that equipped Gary to write his own stories.

From beginning to end, the writing is utterly compelling and the story is breathtaking. As with Paulsen’s most famous book, HATCHET, I recommend ages 10 and up for GONE TO THE WOODS.

Recommended by:  Richie Partington, MLIS, California USA

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