Setting

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 152

The story takes place in McKinley, Minnesota, in the summer and winter of 1958. McKinley, population 900 to 1200 (the Chamber of Commerce uses the higher figure to attract tourists), is a typical small, modestly prosperous Midwestern town of farmers and lumbermen. It is a town where everyone knows everybody...

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The story takes place in McKinley, Minnesota, in the summer and winter of 1958. McKinley, population 900 to 1200 (the Chamber of Commerce uses the higher figure to attract tourists), is a typical small, modestly prosperous Midwestern town of farmers and lumbermen. It is a town where everyone knows everybody else and everybody else's reputation. Most of the action occurs at the town's twin outdoor ice rinks. One is for skating and one is for hockey. Nearby is the warming house where skaters lace up or retreat to escape the cold. The rinks are the town's social center. Here the community gathers in the late afternoon for exercise, entertainment, gossip, and flirtation. Here adults, adolescents, and children mix freely, whether in the free-for-all hockey games with a dozen or so players on a side or on the skating rink where skaters move in time to waltzes and marches from a handful of scratchy old records.

Literary Qualities

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Paulsen skillfully keeps Carl Wenstrom at the center of the novel. He is an original, offbeat, and fascinating creation. By using a narrator who is unremarkable—except for the ability to observe and interpret—Paulsen highlights Carl's remarkable individuality.

The novel beautifully balances contrasting worlds in plot and theme as well as character. McKinley is divided into the adult world and the adolescent world, not antagonistic but just different, each with its own passions and interests. In northern Minnesota the year really has only two seasons, soft summer and hard winter. Each season has its activity: soft summer has fishing, hard winter has skating. Skating has two opposite faces, hockey and dance. The first is communal and hectic, the second private and rhythmic. Minor characters balance major ones. Cully Fransen and Pisspot Jimmy are drunks who show what Carl is not. Willy wonders about eternal philosophical questions while Marsh attends to today's worries. The flirtation between Mr. Melonowski and Miss Johnson throws Carl's courtship of Helen into relief, showing the special difference in Carl's attitude toward Helen. Paulsen arranges these elements like a choreographer planning a ballet. The chorus repeats, echoes, and extends the steps of the lead dancer.

Social Sensitivity

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Unlike other Paulsen novels which concern adolescent protagonists forced to grow up too fast, the central character of Dancing Carl matures more leisurely. Marsh lacks the hardness or precociousness of other Paulsen characters because life has not treated him rudely and put him on his own too early. Instead, Marsh learns vicariously through Carl rather than by traumatic personal experience. Marsh also learns that there are lessons about life even in small events. A crisis will indeed confront an adolescent with the immediate need to act with wisdom beyond one's years, but knowledge also may be gleaned from slowly unfolding events and barely perceptible changes.

Happily, Marsh finds within himself the generosity to sympathize with someone very different, even foreign to his own world. In coming to understand Carl, Marsh realizes that his appreciation of the man is not shared by the adult world. He handles his awareness of this difference in opinion maturely. The adult perspective and the adolescent perspective are different, not automatically antagonistic. Marsh is a well-balanced young man, keenly aware of the good things that life gives him now but ready to grasp the good things that life promises in adulthood. No wonder he knows it is "the best time ever to be twelve." Marsh is a refreshingly positive example of how to grow up.

For Further Reference

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Brown, Muriel W. and Rita Schoch Foudray. "Gary Paulsen." In Newbery and Caldecott Medalists and Honor Book Winners. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, 1992: 324-326. This entry lists awards, provides a bibliography, and includes background reading material concerning Paulsen through 1991.

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. Details of Paulsen's career and a listing of his writings through 1987 are included.

Devereaux, Elizabeth. "Gary Paulsen." Publisher's Weekly (March 28, 1994): 70. Devereaux's interview with Paulsen yields information explaining his career's reversal of fortune in 1983, productivity since 1985, and newest efforts.

"Gary Paulsen." In Authors and Artists for Young Adults. Vol. 2. Agnes Garrett and Helga P. McCure, eds. Detroit: Gale Research, 1989: 165-173. This article lists the author's work through 1988 and draws biographical information from three sources: Marguerite Feitlowitz's interview for this Gale series, Maryann N. Weidt's August 1986 article in Voice of Youth Advocates, "Gary Paulsen: A Sentry for Peace," and Franz Serdahely's January 1980 article in Writers's Digest, "Prolific Paulsen."

"Gary Paulsen." In Children's Literature Review. Vol. 19. Gerard Senick and Sharon R. Gunton, eds. Detroit: Gale Research, 1990: 167-178. Beginning with a summary of Paulsen's work through 1985, this essay's author-commentary section comes from Maryann N. Weidt's August 1986 article in Voice of Youth Advocates, "Gary Paulsen: A Sentry for Peace." Includes reviews on a variety of Paulsen's work for children through 1988.

Serdahely, Franz. "Prolific Paulsen." Writer's Digest (January 1980): 20- 21. This article is somewhat dated, but it includes still valuable material on Paulsen's early years as an author, his writing habits, and his tips for beginning writers.

Trumpet Video Visits Gary Paulsen. Directed by Diane Kolyer. Trumpet Club, 1993. 24 minutes. This video introduces children to the author. Paulsen makes brief comments on Canyons, The Cookcamp, Hatchet, The Monument, The River, and The Winter Room, but the true value of the video is the insight it lends into Paulsen's methods of writing.

Weidt, Maryann N. "The Fortunes of Poverty." Writer's Digest (January 1992): 8. Weidt's brief motivational article for struggling writers is based on Paulsen's recollections of the lean years of his writing career.

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