Source of book: Audiobook from the library
We have enjoyed a number of Gary Paulsen books over the last several years, starting with the Hatchet series (we have also read The River and Brian’s Winter), then progressing to his humorous works like Masters of Disaster and the Kevin series. One thing that can be said about Paulsen is that he writes well in a variety of genres. Hatchet is a survival series that draws on Paulsen’s extensive woodland experience, while his comedies have their genesis in his childhood. We had not, however, read any of his historical fiction before this book.
Woods Runner is set during the beginning of the American Revolutionary War, and is from the perspective of Samuel, a 13 year old boy living on the frontier. After British soldiers burn down his home and village, killing most of the inhabitants, but kidnapping his parents, Samuel sets out on a quest to find them. As the one member of his family with tracking and hunting skills, he is well suited to the task, but he is also young and inexperienced with people and cities.
After surviving a hit from a tomahawk, he rescues a young girl who barely escapes being murdered along with her family by Hessians, and is aided by an old peddler who works as a rebel spy.
This is a fairly short book, so I won’t give away more than that.
As always, Paulsen has researched well, and the details are excellent. From the functioning of a flintlock rifle to the makeshift prisons in New York City, Paulsen’s grasp of how things work and where they are located shows. (I care about stuff like this, obviously…)
This is a Young Adult book, so there is some graphic violence in it. Samuel has to locate and bury the bodies of his neighbors, who have been run through with bayonets. The Hessians shoot down Annie’s parents in cold blood as she watches, then runs for her life. Prisoners die of starvation, disease, and injuries. Paulsen describes gangrene and infected bullet wounds. He isn’t unnecessarily graphic, though. He just doesn’t flinch in describing stuff. For my kids, that was fine - they already have a nurse for a mother, so our dinner conversations can be, well, interesting. But yours may vary.
The bottom line is obvious: war is hell, and makes demons of us. There is ample evidence of British and Hessian soldiers targeting civilians for murder and pillage during the war, and the Americans weren’t much better - they just had fewer targets. I think Paulsen also raises the issue of mercenaries in general. Those who fight for hire, rather than for country, tend to be the worst sorts: those who enjoy killing enough to do it for a living, rather than out of a perceived necessity. Thus, they are more likely to be indiscriminate in their murder, easily killing older people, women, and children. To be sure, ordinary soldiers do this too, but not to the same extent or as easily. One of the traumas of Vietnam was the civilian body count. Many decent men never got over what they did in the fog of war. Paulsen is not pro-war, and it shows. But he is also an American, and he is on the side of the Rebels in this war. It is hard to blame him, honestly, particularly since I too am an American, and believe that the Revolution set a precedent for representative government that has swept most of the world. It was the first real loss for monarchy and colonialism, even if it failed to live up to the ideal of all humans created equal. But the cost was great, as Paulsen reminds us, and war is mostly senseless violence and depravity when you get down to it. Particularly striking was just how high casualty counts were in the conflict - between infections and disease, about half of the soldiers on each side died. That’s pretty horrific.
Paulsen also portrays the horror of killing. Just as in Hatchet and its sequels, Brian must kill to live, but never grows to like causing death, Samuel must kill or be killed, but he loathes it, eventually choosing to work as a doctor rather than a soldier.
A detail that was a good bit more fun, though, was the network of spies and messengers. This is truly one of the overlooked reasons that the underdogs won this war. The Brits had far superior firepower, but they lacked the ability to communicate effectively. With difficulty coordinating troops, individual units were vulnerable to surprise attacks. In addition to the adage of “don’t get ahead of your supply lines” we might add “don’t go beyond your communications network.”
As usual, I definitely recommend Paulsen for reliably well written and compelling books.