Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
Set in northern Minnesota in the period prior to mechanized farming, this short novel is narrated by eleven-year-old Eldon, who lives on an eighty-acre farm with his parents, older brother Wayne, his father’s Uncle David, and David’s friend Nels. Eldon, a third-generation Norwegian American, presents a picture of a simpler way of life as he describes what he likes and dislikes about life during each of the four seasons. Gary Paulsen provides crisp and sometimes graphic descriptions of the softness of spring when the land thaws, the back-breaking work of summer thrashing, the autumn slaughter of pigs and chickens, and the camouflaging snows of winter. Work, particularly repetitive, physical labor, is the major component of the lifestyle that Eldon depicts. The love and bonds among Eldon’s extended family compensates for the lack of material comforts and the isolation of the family from the rest of society. Paulsen also includes some vignettes about the pranks of Eldon and his brother, as well as vivid profiles of Eldon’s father and his Uncle David. Eldon’s mother, for the most part, remains a shadowy figure in the book.
Although Eldon finds some attractive elements in each of the seasons, he loves winter best without question because it is the time when Uncle David enlivens the evenings with his stories, four of which conclude the book: the story of the death of Uncle David’s young wife, Alida; a Norse legend; a tall tale about a practical...
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Both time and place are vividly realized. For these characters, time is not determined by chronology or calendar; time is known through the cycle of the seasons. Each season is known by its distinctive work and play. Time is precious too; it is the stuff of days which passes all too quickly yet has ample room for the rich variety of chores, games, and rituals. Time can be stopped in stories, however, through the power of imagination shared by a teller of tales and his listeners.
The farm is the center of the world in the novel. Although it is located on the edge of a Minnesota forest that stretches limitlessly northward into Canada, the family concerns itself only with its fields, animals, and buildings. At the center of the farm is the house. It is so old that no one recalls the original builder who carved his initials in the wall. Although it lacks modern conveniences, it provides shelter and society. At the center of the house is the winter room. Here the family spends the long winter nights around the wood burning stove. Mother knits, father carves, the uncles chew tobacco, and the young boys wait eagerly. At the center of the winter room's life are the stories.
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The Winter Room is richly descriptive. Paulsen creates an evocative, sensory language to communicate the mood and rhythm of rural life as shaped by the seasons. The language employs several devices that accentuate sound and rhythm. In the first part, "Tuning," the incremental repetition of the phrase, "If books could be more," acts like the verse of a song or the invocation of a chant. The phrase expands in meaning and grows in intensity until it leads to a starkly simple revelation and reminder. Throughout the novel the characteristic device is a cumulative, elaborated sentence. Nouns, verbs, and adjectives multiply to give different aspects of one impression. Phrases and clauses are connected by conjunctions rather than separated by punctuation. The effect is a sense of assembling a rich collage. No one detail is more important than the other; the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
The Winter Room may remind some readers of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie in its attention to description of landscape and farm life. Because young Laura was fascinated with Pa's construction of a door or building of a fireplace, she described the process in great detail. The reader sensed how easy it would be to imitate Pa's actions because the description was so precise. In Paulsen's novel, Eldon is similarly attentive to his father's plowing of the field with a tractor or to slaughtering animals for the winter meat supply....
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Without being sentimental in the least, The Winter Room communicates the richness, the beauty, and the poignancy of rural life in an earlier, simpler time. It presents many positive values: it urges how family life and hard work can be satisfying; it appreciates the role of the older generation in educating the younger generation; it lauds human life attuned to the patterns and rhythms of nature.
Unlike many young adult books that stress conflict between generations, The Winter Room accentuates harmony. The adult world is not a world of privilege and autonomy but of responsibility and community. Paulsen's view is not simplistic or idealistic. The adult world has its pains; growing up is not without loss (as the story of Alida shows) nor without its poignancy (as the Woodcutter's tale illustrates). It has its sacrifices too: compared to Eldon and Wayne's pranks and play, adult recreation is subdued and routine. What adults and adolescents share is imagination: the former tell stories while the latter invent games. Both satisfy the human need for something, as Mother says, to "be believed in." The Winter Room is that rare book that cultivates the aesthetic sensibility of adolescents.
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Topics for Discussion
1. The chapter titles about the seasons are printed in italics; the others are in plain text. What does the difference imply?
2. "Tuning" wishes that books had smells and sounds and light, but they cannot. What do they have instead, which is ultimately better?
3. Does Eldon appreciate all four seasons equally?
4. Characterize the relationship between Eldon and Wayne.
5. Why is the winter room the most important room in the house?
6. Mother says that "stories are not so much for believing as to be believed in"? What is the difference?
7. Are there common elements of plot, theme, or characterization in the stories of "Alida," "Orud the Terrible," "Crazy Alen," and "The Woodcutter"?
8. Is Paulsen's device of letting the conflict between the boys and Uncle David be enacted indirectly better than having all three confront each other?
9. Were Eldon and Wayne right not to tell Uncle David they had seen him split a log with two axes simultaneously?
10. Uncle David seems magically transformed when he splits the log. Is the description convincing?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. In a literary encyclopedia or dictionary look up the definition of a "Georgic." Apply the concept to The Winter Room.
2. Look up the definition of "pastoral" in a literary encyclopedia or reference work. Apply the concept to The Winter Room.
3. From Jim Trelease's Reading Aloud Handbook or a similar guide, get some advice on techniques of reading aloud effectively. Choose one of Uncle David's stories and prepare it for oral presentation.
4. The story ends with Eldon summarizing a new, enthralling Uncle David story. Write that story as you think Uncle David would tell it.
5. In a literary dictionary or encyclopedia look up the definition of a "legend." Apply the concept to David's story of "Orud the Terrible."
6. In the same source look up the definition of a "tall tale." Apply the concept to "Crazy Alen."
7. Write a description of a season as it happens in a certain environment: the city, the suburbs, a park. Write the description, imitating Paulsen's style.
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Paulsen has written extensively about growing up in the Midwest. Small towns and farms in Minnesota and Wisconsin are frequent settings for his novels. The Cookcamp, Harris and Me, Dancing Carl, and The Island all use these backdrops.
An important theme in these novels revolves around an adolescent protagonist who is coming of age through interaction with an adult. Sometimes a relative, sometimes a stranger, the influential adult is different or odd. Often the adult is a loner or an outcast. When the protagonist is able to get beyond society's assumptions about the adult or even behind the adult's defenses, the central character finds an important lesson about life.
The lesson is that in work or in love, adulthood often exacts a steep price for the privilege of independence. Paulsen's protagonists discover that beyond youth's voyage through new pleasures and temporary anxieties lies the adult pilgrimage into inescapable time and inevitable pain. The best traveling companion on the journey will be courage.
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For Further Reference
Brown, Muriel W. and Rita Schoch Foudray. "Gary Paulsen." In Newbery and Caldecott Medalists and Honor Book Winners. New York: Neal-Schuman, 1992: 324-326. This entry lists awards, includes a bibliography, and mentions background reading material concerning Paulsen through 1991.
Bruner, Katharine. Review. School Library Journal (October 1989): 136. Bruner praises Paulsen's ability to pen "a mood poem in prose," and recommends the introductory chapter, in particular, to teachers "who seek to illuminate the use of ordinary English words with extraordinary descriptive power."
Coil, Marianne. Interview. Standing Room Only. National Public Radio. WFYI, Indianapolis. April 7, 1994. Coil's interview focuses on Paulsen's recent novel, Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod and his interest in the race, but it does include some recent personal information about the author.
Commire, Anne, ed. "Gary Paulsen." In Something About the Author. Vol. 54. Detroit: Gale Research, 1989: 76-82. The majority of personal information about Paulsen found in this entry comes from an interview Marguerite Feitlowitz did for another Gale reference series, Authors and Artists for Young Adults. Details of Paulsen's career and a listing of his writings through 1987 are also included.
Devereaux, Elizabeth. "Gary Paulsen." Publisher's Weekly (March 28, 1994): 70. Devereaux's interview with...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
Jones, J. Sydney. “Paulsen, Gary.” In Something About the Author, edited by Alan Hedblad. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2000.
Moore, John Noell. “Archetypes: The Monomyth in Dogsong.” In Interpreting Young Adult Literature. Portsmouth, N.H.: Boynton/Cook, 1997.
Paulsen, Gary. Father Water, Mother Woods: Essays on Fishing and Hunting in the North Woods. New York: Delacorte Press, 1994.
Paulsen, Gary. Guts: The True Stories Behind “Hatchet” and the Brian Books. New York: Delacorte Press, 2001.
Salvner, Gary. Presenting Gary Paulsen. Boston: Twayne, 1996.
Wood, Susan. “Bringing Us the Way to Know: The Novels of Gary Paulsen.” English Journal 90, no. 3 (January, 2001): 67-72.
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