It's an accessible and completely unsentimental survival guide disguised as an adventure narrative wrapped in an ode to nature.
I must have been in 5th grade when I was first exposed to the quiet adventure of Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain. I remember that my elementary school teacher dimmed the lights and we all sat on the floor quietly thrilling to the idea of running away from home to live in a tree of our own. It didn’t hurt that I lived in Colorado at the time and had my own mountains close at hand. I could easily imagine the gorges and slopes that Sam navigated in his solitude, despite the fact that he was in the Catskills and I was in the Rockies.
The visions of Sam’s lonesome life in the woods stuck with me for a very long time. Like the tree that Sam makes his home, the story hollowed me out and took up residence. And, in fact, the feeling was still there when I became a father to two boys of my own. But it wasn’t until we were approaching our first camping trip as a family that I considered introducing my own boys to My Side of the Mountain.
The timing just felt right. I was about to give my 7-year-old his first pocket knife. He and his 5-year-old brother were both aching to be in the woods, by the fire, in a tent. They practically vibrated with excitement. Not to mention, they’d been on a Wild Kratts jag recently. I wanted to offer them a counterpoint — a look at the natural world that was far quieter and far less candy-colored.
We cracked the book after returning from our trip. The whole family piled onto the couch and I launched into the story. I’d forgotten how quickly it moved. Within pages, the determined young Sam had left home for an ancestral farm in the Catskills, long abandoned by a grandfather. He simply leaves New York City, with very little argument from his father and few supplies, hitching a ride into the Catskills to be free of his cramped family apartment and the bustle of the city.
My boys were hooked immediately. The idea of a boy the age of their youngest cousin wandering away into the woods entranced them. What about his Mom and Dad, my boys asked? Wouldn’t they be sad? Wouldn’t he be lonely?
Loneliness is a foreign concept to my children. They are surrounded by cousins and aunts and neighborhood friends. Even when those individuals are absent, they have each other. The thought of setting off for the mountains to live independently off the land offered a kind of frightening thrill, offering a tension in the story I never felt as an only child of divorced parents. If I were in the woods as a kid, I was usually alone with my thoughts and the sound of wind in the Aspens. I felt a kinship with Sam. My children listened more with envy.
I’d forgotten how much of My Side of the Mountain reads like a wilderness survival guide. Sam has done his research. While he has little equipment, he has a ton of knowledge and explains, in detail, how to make a fishhook, how to make a fire, which plants are good to eat and the best way to make a shelter. Every other page offers a practical illustration. So as Sam learns how to build a clay stove in his hollowed out tree, so does the reader. When Sam learns about carbon monoxide poisoning after nearly dying from his stove, the reader learns the importance of ventilation.
It was all very inspiring to my engineer-minded kids. They wanted to start building and making too. The cushions in the playroom couch were put to use for weeks as tree-home and a cave. Outside, they stacked stick against a dead tree to make a lean-to. And every evening before bed they’d eagerly return to learn what Sam would do next.
And then there were the animals. About halfway through the book, Sam embarks on a thrilling climb to capture a falcon chick so he can teach it to hunt for him. It’s a turning point in the story, a moment where Sam truly turns away from the wider world to become a child in synch with the woods. He names the Falcon frightful and she becomes his link to the woods. She is wilder than she is tame. She’s the opposite of Sam who is tamer than he is wild.
Jean Craighead George writes about the animals of the Catskills in a very matter-of-fact way. They are not treated with any sentimental magic. They behave like animals would. For instance, Sam never really becomes friends with the local weasel he calls Baron. Instead, the animal tolerates him, randomly biting him at intervals when Sam gets too comfortable. It’s the same for the other animals. They live real lives and die real deaths all in very matter-of-fact prose.
Sam’s relationship with the animals is both adversarial and conservative. He needs deer, for instance, for meat and clothing, but doesn’t relish killing them. He takes them because he needs them in order to survive. Their death means his life.
That idea of taking what you need for survival is a foreign concept to modern kids who thrive on surplus. It was a foreign concept even for the children of 1969 when My Side of the Mountain was first published. But the book explains the idea of living only with what you need in a stoic simplicity that might threaten to be boring. But Sam finds enough conflict that the story moves at a fine clip. My boys were never tired of it, which surprised me in a way.
But maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. At its core, My Side of the Mountain is a story about independence. And really, isn’t that what our kids really crave? They want to be able to make decisions on their own. They want to be able to engage in dangerous activities like building fires and taming animals. And that’s likely why My Side of the Mountain retains such an enduring quality even nearly 40 years after it was first published.
After all, our kids live in a world where everything is mapped. What kid wouldn’t want to imagine stepping off of that map and living on their own terms? Falcon and tree optional.
You can snag a copy of the book right here.
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