Ahoy, Bookwyrms! It’s been a while, but my Ocean Girl Radar™ has caught something new!
It’s a semi-autobiographical, whale-heavy tale of oceanic solo travel by the master of Middle-Grade wilderness survival stories.
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Gary Paulsen. Northwind. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2022.
Rating: 5 out of 5 barely-escaped whirlpools of death
OR: 5 out of 5 bear signs you have to check for so you don’t almost get eaten again while picking berries.
OR: 5 out of 5 cedar story boards you keep for posterity, just in case one of your distant descendants-in-spirit turns out to be a famous author who can translate Norse runes into Middle Grade Novel.
- “Immigrant Song,” by Led Zeppelin (it’s a Thor reference. Obviously).
- “Visjoner,” by Merethe Trøan (Norway’s 1992 Eurovision entry).
- “My Mother Told Me,” by Datamotion, L.B. One, and Perły i Łotry (it’s that badass Vikings song that was all over TikTok for a while).
- “Exhale, Inhale,” by AURORA (the literal voice of the north wind).
- “Whale,” by Yellow Ostrich. ‘Nuff said.
Coffee Pairing: Ok, so Leif is a bit too busy surviving cholera, finding food and shelter, and avoiding bears and whirlpools and icebergs and breaching whales to take a coffee break, but if he could, I’m sure he’d enjoy a totally scratch-made cedar mug of My Solo Roast (created by #VanLife queen Sydney Ferbrache, better known as @divineontheroad) boiled over a small fire, with freshwater from a glacial stream.
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CW: This book contains graphic, gruesome descriptions of a deadly gastrointestinal illness.
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Paulsen’s final book, published after his death, is a magnum opus. It’s a story he says he’s been working on his entire life, an homage to his deep-down obsession with the sea.*
It began with his grandmother’s stories in the “freshly sawn rough pine” trailer she shared with Paulsen when she worked at a cook camp for a road construction company in northern Minnesota. “She was from the Old Country,” Paulsen says in his Author’s Note. “Norway. And in Norway she said you are either of the land or of the sea and much, perhaps all of her knowledge, all that she heard or was told in her stories, from her childhood, was of the sea.”
Soon Paulsen was sea-bound himself — first sailing across the equatorial Pacific with his mother, then around the Baja peninsula as an adult, back west through the South Pacific, and then…North.
Paulsen only had enough money for a low-grade (“clunky and poorly designed”) vessel, but he sailed that glorious bargain boat all the way from California to Alaska. He made it, alone, through “places of often blinding horror,” through deadly winds and riptides, “astonishingly horrible” storms and past orca pods guarded by always-vigilant males.
Paulsen was careful and observant himself, but also lucky. He knew to respect Nature’s mood swings, “taking things as they came,” adjusting as needed, and hoping for the best.
So how much harder would it have been for a twelve-year-old boy, centuries ago, to sail alone up the Norwegian coast in a small dugout canoe, barely stocked and fighting a violent illness?
In Northwind, Paulsen tells us a fictionalized version of his origin story. A mythic hero, a boy who could’ve been one of Paulsen’s ancestors, named after a mythic explorer so famous even sea sponges know about him.
No one mentions that Leif in the story, of course, but he’s totally there in spirit. Maybe he even pulled a few cosmic strings to help the eponymous protagonist, which just goes to show that flattery (by way of naming your potentially seafaring kid after a legendary nautical traveler) will get you everywhere.
Anyhoo, young Leif is an orphan (the Chosen One vibes are strong with this one) who’s been hot-potatoed from one ship to another after his mother dies (Chosen Ones do tend to be hazardous cargo…they have that obnoxious habit of attracting Motivational Tragedy to anyone unlucky enough to share a zip code), until he’s finally dropped off at a small fish camp.
Cue plague ship.
Clearly there were no standardized protocols regarding shipboard infections and ports of call back then, so whoops! Guess who’s getting cholera? Everyone!!!
And that’s how Leif’s extreme survivalist camping adventure begins.
It’s like the Jean Auel books if Ayla rode whales** instead of horses. Or Ocean Girl if Neri didn’t have the benefit of being a magical free-diving alien princess.
Although, Leif might as well be a princess himself (the Disney kind), what with all the animals that keep inadvertently helping him or at least deeming him non-edible.
As if that wasn’t enough (and I mean this with the utmost respect for Little Carl. Rest in Valhalla, young warrior), there’s even a Neville Longbottom figure in the story, because all the best Chosen Ones have understudies. If…you know…Neville didn’t have the benefit of being a wizard and therefore probably immune to Muggle illnesses. Then again, Neville didn’t get immortalized via poetic epic prologue, so there’s that.
The morbid humor is strong with me today… 😅
In all seriousness, though, this is a beautifully written novel. It’s delicate as a jackhammer about the facts of death, but it’s also mythic, lyrical, and ultimately optimistic. And the protagonist basically talks to whales. More or less.
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What about you, Bookwyrms? Feel like taking a vicarious voyage Into the Nordic Unknown? What’s the most rugged outdoor adventure you’ve ever had, and how did you survive to tell me all about it in the comments?
* Author’s Note.
** He totally rides whales. From a certain point of view.
Hard Mode GIF from MEME.
Spongebob GIF from giphy.
Pirate flag GIF from giphy.
Gravity Falls screenshot from youtube.
What a cool-sounding story! Except for the cholera part. Cholera is horrifying.
(Also, I appreciate your Gravity Falls reference.)
Yeahhh, Paulsen doesn’t pull any punches with the horrifying nature of cholera. The descriptions are relatively brief, though, and for the rest of the story, Leif just calls it The Sick and tries not to think about it too deeply.
Always happy to reference the Weirdness epicenter of America. 😅
[…] Northwind, by Gary Paulsen. […]