northwind by gary paulsen

This stunning novel from the survival story master, set along a rugged coastline centuries ago, does for the ocean what Hatchet does for the woods, as it relates the story of a young person’s battle to stay alive against the odds, where the high seas meet a coastal wilderness.

When a deadly plague reaches the small fish camp where he lives, an orphan named Leif is forced to take to the water in a cedar canoe. He flees northward, following a wild, fjord-riven shore, navigating from one danger to the next, unsure of his destination. But the deeper into his journey he paddles, the closer he comes to his truest self as he connects to “the heartbeat of the ocean . . . the pulse of the sea.”

With hints of Nordic mythology and an irresistible narrative pull, Northwind is Gary Paulsen at his captivating, adventuresome best.---from the publisher

256 pages                        978-0374314200                               Ages 10-14

Keywords:  survival, adventure, wilderness, plague, Nordic mythology, ocean, 10 year old, 11 year old, 12 year old, 13 year old, 14 year old, If You Liked Hatchet, nature, historical fiction, emotions, feelings, self reliance


“Well, you hope the road you follow

Will lead you to the sea

And you hope that time allows you

To start livin’ free

But when the world is busy

And the way is hard to see

When tomorrow comes

Will you remember?”

– Jorma Kaukonen, “Corners Without Exits” (1974)

“But there was more to it than just a game. They seemed to have such a definite purpose that when he watched more closely he could see they were using the rocks in some way. Perhaps to clean their sides and belly. They were carefully moving their bodies, rolling from side to side, rubbing at the inlet’s bottom with their faces, back down to their tails, flukes, and even these they carefully dragged across the stones.

And when the adults were done, they worked at teaching the young ones, who had been watching but not trying, to go to the end of the inlet and start passing and rolling across. Initially they simply didn’t understand and would go the wrong way, or head out of the inlet, or forget to roll, or just do one side, or pick up one of the stones and head-flip it skittering across the surface and try to hit it with their tail. They were, Leif thought, like a pack of young dogs and and he laughed out loud until he noticed that one of the whales, the big male–perhaps hearing the sound of his laugh–moved slowly away from the juveniles and stopped, lying right next to the canoe, almost touching, so that his body was between the canoe and the rest of the pod who were still trying to get the youngsters–Leif actually thought of them as pups–to start using the rocks correctly.

And there he stayed.

Not being aggressive, not even threatening.

Just there.


In the distant past, in a fictional north land reminiscent of Scandinavia, a cholera epidemic decimates the populace. As conditions rapidly deteriorate, an orphan named Leif, a boy who has been raised among the wharves, boats, and fishing nets, and has generally been treated like an indentured servant, is given a wooden canoe and told to head north, away from the dead and dying.

NORTHWIND is a beautifully crafted survival tale by the late great Gary Paulsen. It features the boy all alone in the world except for the other creatures with whom he shares his journey. The story is filled with cinematic descriptions of the boy and the canoe moving northward, as Leif first recuperates from his own near-fatal bout with the sickness, and then begins to make a real go of the journey. The tale brings Leif and the readers into contact with bears, raptors, and the creatures of the sea. We can taste the “rich thickness” of that big male whale’s exhaled breath, salty and fishy, as he rolls past the boy. We visualize the dorsal fin sticking up that Leif is just dying to reach out and touch.

As the most recent wave of death from COVID finally begins to subside, tweens and teens will be moved by this poetic and gripping story set amidst a long-ago pandemic.

Some younger kids may be less entranced about the subtlety of the action here–more “man learns to live in harmony with the immensity and majesty of nature” instead of your typical “man conquers nature” yarn. But many young readers will be drawn to the dreamlike quality of Leif’s adventure and the literary writing, which is stunning and memorable. Many will readily imagine themselves in that canoe, trying to figure out how the dolphins navigate the tricky ocean currents and whirlpools, so they can safely paddle through the frequently dangerous conditions.

It’s tough saying bye to Gary Paulsen, who passed away a few months ago. Paulsen's work will be long remembered, undoubtedly to be shared, loved, and passed down for generations to come.

Richie Partington, MLIS, California USA

See more of his recommendations: Richie's Picks

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