Samuel, 13, spends his days in the forest, hunting for food for his family. He has grown up on the frontier of a British colony, America. Far from any town, or news of the war against the King that American patriots have begun near Boston.
But the war comes to them. British soldiers and Iroquois attack. Samuel's parents are taken away, prisoners. Samuel follows, hiding, moving silently, determined to find a way to rescue them. Each day he confronts the enemy, and the tragedy and horror of this war. But he also discovers allies, men and women working secretly for the patriot cause. And he learns that he must go deep into enemy territory to find his parents: all the way to the British headquarters, New York City.
Set during the American Revolution, Paulsen's (Hatchet) slim novel candidly and credibly exposes the underbelly of that war. Sam is a skilled hunter with an instinctive knowledge of the western Pennsylvania forest-a "woods runner." When word of fighting between the British and the colonists reaches his family, the 13-year-old realizes that his life will change ("The loud outside world his parents had escaped by moving to the frontier had found them"). It is a brutal change: Sam returns from a hunting expedition to find houses in their settlement burned to the ground and the scalped bodies of neighbors. His harrowing quest to locate and rescue his parents-taken prisoner by the culprits, British soldiers aided by Iroquois-involves a nearly fatal run-in with a tomahawk-wielding native; a narrow escape from marauding Hessian mercenaries; and a fortuitous encounter with a Scottish tinker who's a spy for the patriots. Paulsen fortifies this illuminating and gripping story with interspersed historical sections that offer details about frontier life and the war (such as technology, alliances, and other period information), helping place Sam's struggles in context. Ages 12-up. (Jan.) Copyright 2009 Reed Business Information.
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Wendy Lamb Books
January 11, 2010
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Excerpt from Woods Runner by Gary Paulsen
He was not sure exactly when he became a child of the forest.
One day it seemed he was eleven and playing in the dirt around the cabin or helping with chores, and the next, he was thirteen, carrying a .40-caliber Pennsylvania flintlock rifle, wearing smoked-buckskin clothing and moccasins, moving through the woods like a knife through water while he tracked deer to bring home to the cabin for meat.
He sat now by a game trail waiting for the deer he knew would come soon. He had heard it, a branch brushing a hairy side, a twig cracking, smelled it when the wind blew toward him, the musk and urine of a buck. He checked the priming on his rifle while he waited, his mind and body relaxed, patient, ears and eyes and nose alert. Quiet. Every part of him at rest, yet focused and intense.
And he pictured his life, how he lived in two worlds.
Sometimes Samuel thought that a line dividing those worlds went right through their cabin. To the west, beyond the small parchment window made of grease-soaked sheepskin scraped paper-thin, lay the forest.
The forest was unimaginably vast, impenetrable, mysterious and dark. His father had told him that a man could walk west for a month, walk as fast as he could, and never see the sun, so high and dense was the canopy of leaves.
Even close to their homestead--twelve acres clawed out of the timber with a small log cabin and a lean-to for a barn--the forest was so thick that in the summer Samuel could not see more than ten or fifteen yards into it. Some oak and elm and maple trees were four and five feet in diameter and so tall and thickly foliaged their height could only be guessed.
A wild world.
And while there were trails made by game and sometimes used by natives, settlers or trappers, the paths wandered and meandered so that they were impossible to use in any sensible way. Except to hunt.
When he first started going into the forest, Samuel went only a short distance. That first time, though he was well armed with his light Pennsylvania rifle and dry powder and a good knife, he instantly felt that he was in an alien world.
As a human he did not belong. It was a world that did not care about man any more than it cared about dirt, or grass, or leaves. He did not get lost that first time, because he'd marked trees with his knife as he walked so he could find his way out; butstill, in some way he felt lost, as if, were he not careful, a part of him would disappear and never return, gone to the wildness. Samuel had heard stories of that happening to some men. They entered the forest to hunt or trap or look for new land to settleand simply vanished.
"Gone to the woods," people said of them.
Some, he knew, were dead. Killed by accident, or panthers or bear or Indians. He had seen such bodies. One, a man mauled to death by a bear that had attacked his horse while the man was plowing; the man's head was eaten; another, killed by an arrow through the throat. An arrow, Samuel knew, that came out of the woods from a bow that was never seen, shot by a man who was never known. And when he was small, safe inside the cabin near the mud-brick fireplace with his mother and father, he had heard the panthers scream; they sounded like a woman gone mad.
Oh, he knew the forest could kill. Once, sitting by the fire, a distant relative, a shirttail uncle who was a very old man of nearly fifty named Ishmael, had looked over his shoulder as if expecting to see monsters and said, "Nothing dies of old age in the forest. Not bugs, not deer, not bear nor panthers nor man. Live long enough, be slow enough, get old enough and something eats you. Everything kills."
And yet Samuel loved the forest now. He knew the sounds and smells and images like he knew his own mind, his own yard. Each time he had entered he'd gone farther, learned more, marked more trees with his knife, until he always knew where he was. Now he thought of the deep forest as his home, as much as their cabin.
But some men vanished for other reasons, too. Because the forest pulled them and the wild would not let them go. Three years ago, when Samuel was ten, he had seen one of these men, a man who moved like smoke, his rifle a part of his arm, a tomahawk through his belt next to a slab-bladed knife, eyes that saw all things, ears that heard all things. One family in the settlement had a room on their cabin that was a kind of store. The man had come to the store to buy small bits of cloth and powder and English flints for his rifle at the same time Samuel was waiting for his mother to buy thread.
The man smelled of deep forest, of smoke and blood and grease and something green--Samuel knew he smelled that way, too. The stranger could not be still. As he stood waiting, he moved. Though he was courteous and nodded to people, as soon as he had the supplies for his rifle and some salt, he left. He was there one moment and gone the next, into the trees, gliding on soft moccasins to become part of the forest, as much as any tree or leaf or animal. He went west.
Away from man, away from the buildings and the settled land.
Now Samuel heard a new sound. He moved his eyes slowly to the left without turning his head and was rewarded by seeing a tick-infested rabbit sitting by a tree trying to clear the insects out of his ears. Samuel smiled. Even in dead of winter the rabbits were always trying to rid themselves of the pests.
The sight made him think of his mother, who was intensely curious and had once asked him to take her into the forest. They had not gone far, not over five hundred yards from the edge of the clearing, and had stopped under a towering oak where sunlightcould not get through. There was a subdued green light over everything. Even their faces looked a gentle green.
"I have to go back," she said, her eyes wide, wrapping a shawl tightly around her shoulders, though it was summer-warm. "This is too . . . too . . . thick. Even the air is green. So thick it feels like it could be cut. I have to go back now."
Although Samuel's parents lived in the wilderness, they were not a part of it. They had been raised in towns and had been educated in schools where they'd been taught to read and write and play musical instruments. They moved west when Samuel was a baby, so that they could devote themselves to a quiet life of hard physical work and contemplation. They loved the woods, but they did not understand them. Not like Samuel.
They had told their son that they didn't belong in towns, either. They weren't comfortable in the world of roads, houses and villages. East of the imaginary line in the cabin was what his father and mother called civilization.
They told Samuel about the chaos of towns that they'd escaped. There were noises--hammers clanging at blacksmith forges, chickens clucking, dogs barking, cows lowing, horses whinnying and whickering, people who always seemed to need to be talking to oneanother.
There wasn't noise in the forest.
There were smells: wood smoke filled the air in every season because it wasn't just for heat, but to cook as well; the smell of oak for long fires, pine for short and fast and hot fires. The smell of bread, and sometimes, if they were lucky and had honey or rock sugar to pulverize in a sack with a hammer, sweet pie. The odor of stew cooking in the cast-iron pot over an outside fire or in an iron kettle hung in the fireplace, the scent flying up through the chimney and out over the ground as the wind moved the smoke around. There was the tang of manure, stacked in back of small shedlike barns to age before it was put on gardens; horse and cow and chicken manure from their farm and other farms. So many smells swirled by the same wind throughout the small valley.
Their valley was like a huge bowl, nestled in the hills in far western Pennsylvania. Here lived, and had always lived, Samuel Lehi Smith, age thirteen, with his father, Olin, and his mother, Abigail, parents whom Samuel did not always understand but whom he loved.
They read to him about the world beyond from their prized books. All the long winter nights with tallow candles burning while they sat by the fireplace, they read aloud to each other. At first he'd listened as they took turns. Later he read to himself and knew the joyous romp of words on paper. He read all the books they had in the cabin and then books from other cabins in the valley so that he could know more and more of a world found only in his imagination and dreams.
To the east lay the faraway world of enormous cities and the Great Sea and Europe and Ancient Rome and Darkest Africa and the mysterious land of the Asias and so many people they couldn't be counted. All kinds of different people with foreign languages and their knowledge of strange worlds.
To the east lay polished shoes and ornate clothes and formal manners and enormous wealth. His mother would spin tales for him about cultured men who wore carefully powdered wigs and dipped snuff out of little silver snuffboxes and beautiful women dressed in gowns of silk and satin with swirling petticoats as they danced in the great houses and exclusive salons of London and Paris.
Now. The deer stepped out. It stood in complete profile not thirty yards away. Samuel held his breath. He waited for it to turn away, look around in caution. When it did, he raised the rifle and cocked the hammer, pulling it back as quietly as he could, the sear dropping in with a soft snick. The rifle had two triggers, a "set" trigger that armed a second, front trigger and made it so sensitive that a mere brush released the hammer. He moved his finger from the set trigger and laid it next to but didn't touch the hair trigger. Then he settled the German silver blade of the front sight into the tiny notch of the rear sight and floated the tip of the blade sight until it rested just below the shoulder of the young buck.
Directly over its heart.
A half second, no, a quarter second passed. Samuel could touch the hair trigger now and the hammer would drop, the flint would scrape the metal "frizzen," kicking it out of the way and showering sparks down on the powder in the small pan, which would igniteand blow a hot jet of gas into the touch hole on the side of the barrel of the rifle, setting off the charge, propelling the small .40-caliber ball down the bore. Before the buck heard the sound of the rifle, the ball would pass through the heart and out the other side of the deer, killing it.
And yet he did not pull the trigger. He waited. Part of a second, then a full second. And another. The deer turned, saw him standing there. With a convulsive explosion of muscle, it jumped straight in the air. It landed running and disappeared into the trees.
The whole time Samuel had not really been thinking of the deer, but what lay east. Of what they called civilization. He eased the hammer of the rifle down to the first notch on the sear, a safety position, and lowered the weapon. Oddly, he wasn't disappointed that he'd not taken the deer, though the fresh meat would have been nice roasted over the hearth. He'd killed plenty of deer, sometimes ten or fifteen a day, so many they could not possibly eat all the meat. He often shot them because the deer raided the cornfields and had to be killed to save the crops. Most families did not like deer meat anyway. They considered it stringy and tough and it was often wormy. The preferred meat was bear or beaver, which were richer and less "cordy."
This deer would have been nice. They had not had fresh meat in nearly two weeks. But it was gone now.
He could not stop his wondering about what lay to the east. The World. It was supposed to be a better place than the frontier, with a more sensible way to live. And yet he had just learned an ugly truth about that world only the evening before.
Those people in the world who were supposed to be civilized, full of knowledge and wisdom and graciousness and wealth and education, were caught in the madness of vicious, bloody war.
It did not make any sense.
Samuel started trotting back toward the cabin in an easy shuffle-walk that moved him quietly and at some speed without wearing out his moccasins; he was lucky to get a month per pair before they wore through at the heels. He moved without a great deal of effort, his eyes and ears missing very little as he almost flowed through the forest. But his mind was still on the man who had brought the sheet of paper the night before.