Gary Paulsen Essay - Critical Essays

Gary Paulsen American Literature Analysis

Anyone choosing to familiarize oneself with the stories of Paulsen might acknowledge his debt to his literary predecessor, Jack London (Paulsen has written an introduction to an edition of London’s 1903 Call of the Wild). Paulsen’s work might be best recognized within the literary movement that London, himself, is most readily identified with: American naturalism. Paulsen’s naturalism asks the reader to study the characters objectively within his fictions working in or out of concert with capricious nature. Paulsen’s characters thereby often operate by instinct and self-governed passion. Their success or failure is largely outside of their control and given to the whim of an indifferent nature, but often they can survive if youth, imagination, and adaptability is on their side.

In connection with this viewpoint, Paulsen often writes of youthful men from a third-person omniscient perspective. This approach allows for tension to heighten in his plots by distancing the reader from the security of the protagonist’s thoughts and illustrating them as alone with only their wits to aid them against their isolation. In some cases, Brian in Hatchet (1987) and Russel in Dogsong, for example, this concept can be seen as obvious within their situation: Brian’s plane crash leaves him alone to survive in the woods, and Russel specifically takes his spiritual journey by himself as he feels that all who surround him have been corrupted by civilization. Other times, however, the feeling of isolation is more subtle. For example, in Soldier’s Heart (1998), the Union Army surrounds Charley Goddard—he is never alone—but within his own mind he can neither find nor appreciate any offered companionship or bond. When the possibility of a connection with another soldier seems likely, the nature of the war intervenes with that soldier’s untimely death.

With this isolation, Paulsen’s writing is characterized by a terse, limited dialogue and a very clean prose style often critically compared to Hemingway. His narratives are often constructed upon the observation and reporting of the characters’ situation with scant glances into their minds. This reporter’s stance offers the reader a powerful, never-retreating and often unforgiving view of the world in all its glory and infamy; Paulsen spares the reader no detail, no matter how visceral, in order to preserve the reality of the situation. For example, when the medics must operate out in the chilly cold of the Civil War in winter, a lead surgeon instructs Charley to create a barrier out of the corpses of fallen soldiers to cut the wind. Exhausted both mentally and physically after doing do, he falls asleep next to the wall to keep warm.

Survival, as such, proves to be Paulsen’s most dominant theme. In many instances, in order to survive, Paulsen’s characters arguably revert to a feral state that they were not aware existed within them, as when Brian eats innumerable raw turtle eggs in order to stave off starvation or when Charley discovers an insatiable bloodlust to kill Confederate soldiers when he feels that his survival is predicated upon either killing or being killed. Likewise, the incursion of civilization upon nature, the apparent facade of humanity’s belief that it can domesticate the wild, frequents Paulsen’s stories and is vilified. More often than not, characters who do survive his stories quickly discover that nature will tame them before they will tame it. Thus, Paulsen’s figures often undergo a transformation: Brian, Russel, and Charley all regard it as a form of rebirth where their old selves dissolve and fall away under the weight of their new circumstances.


First published: 1985

Type of work: Novel

Fearing the loss of his cultural mores, a young boy takes a dog team on a quest to reclaim his traditions and find himself.

At times almost impressionistic in its narrative, Dogsong tells the story of Russel Susskit, a young Inuit living in the shadows of what he perceives as Western society’s incursion upon his Eskimo culture. Partially inspired by a seven-day-run Paulsen himself took in Minnesota during his trapping days and his two runs of the nearly twelve-hundred-mile Iditarod, the plot approaches the idea that to know oneself is to know nature and reject civilization and all its trappings.

Western civilization, for Russel, brings about the destruction of tradition, whether that comes in the form of his father’s abandonment of tribal religion in lieu of accepting the missionary’s Jesus Christ or the disintegration of his people’s songs—the oral history which they no longer sing. His father notices Russel’s discontent and acquiesces to him finding himself through the old ways. There is almost a resigned desperation to Russel’s father since he has become so far separated from his own culture that he cannot teach Russel of the old traditions—he can only point him to a surrogate who can: the elder Oogruk.

Even to Russel, the idea is somewhat preposterous: While the community venerates and respects Oogruk’s role in their society, he is blind and therefore considered invalid and he is also considered wildly eccentric and completely out of touch with the contemporary mores encroaching upon his people. Oogruk, however, becomes the panacea for Russel’s angst when he sets him off on a path with no direction except...

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