By Gary Paulsen
Gary Paulsen’s latest novel, “Northwind,” a survival story as masterfully understated as the man himself, comes full circle in the author’s career and life. Where his 1986 novel “Hatchet” was about a deserved connection to the land, “Northwind” is about a deserved connection to the sea. Won because the main characters in both have to deal with beauty and brutality. of nature, as well as accepting its indifference.
Like many classic tales, “Northwind” begins with an orphan – here a child named Leif, of parents “whose name cannot be remembered”. The period of time is that mystical twilight of history when Scandinavia was little more than scattered Nordic villages; when wisdom was woven with superstition as much as the earth is interwoven with fjords.
When the isolated town of Leif, 12, is infected with a deadly contagion, he and a younger child are put in a canoe and sent on their own to escape the disease. Only Leif survives. He quickly realizes that he had “prepared for death” but “not for life”. If he is to win, he will have to actively seek out every lesson the natural world has to offer.
“Go north,” Leif was told. North. A vector without a destination. He will quickly understand that having a direction is much more important than having a destination when traveling into the unknown.
Along the way, Leif learns to motivate himself by observing the behavior of the orcas. He learns to survive the tidal bore by watching how dolphins play it. He learns what it really means to live by watching a bay full of blue and gray whales “attempting to fly and backing off” while continuing to pierce gleefully in utter disregard of their inability to fly. These lessons are deceptively simple but as deep as the coves carved by the glaciers it traverses.
He discovers that to touch the fin of an orca is to cross a bridge between beings. He notices how a killer whale’s diet is perfectly choreographed – complete with whales and salmon, crows and eagles. He’s in awe of the violence and poise, and a revelation (after grazing an island with a bear) that he’s not part of that poise but aspires to be, prompting him to make a wish to Odin: “I will join with and from this place.” I will see. And learn. And know this place and all the places that will come to me.
Paulsen, who died in October, was not only a master storyteller, but also a master world builder. Leif’s journey to the north is “a movement across the worlds.” And although these worlds are terrestrial, they are as fresh and surprising as distant stars. We share Leif’s wonder at a huge blue iceberg and his terror of a tidal whirlpool strong enough to hold a giant tree upright. Ultimately, readers get the overwhelming feeling that the ocean has a heartbeat, that all things in and around it are not only connected but essential, and that we too can be a part of it, if only we take the time to learn.
Leif recounts his journey by carving “thought images” on pieces of wood, making the story a metaphor for the author’s life. In fact, Leif’s most wonderful moments were distilled from Paulsen’s own experiences as he traveled the world.
We lost Paulsen too soon. His journey north took him beyond this aurora-lit horizon. But we can still see it, and hear it, in the thought images he left in these pages: “Now there is no line separating me from the canoe, from what I have become. The boat is my skin and my body and my spirit and I am the water and the wood and the sun and the birds. All one. All together as one. I’m part of it now. Part of it all. I became.” In Paulsen’s own words, a great and worthy journey is over.