Testing Boundaries on My Side of the Mountain
My daughter and I have read a lot of books together lately. You’ve probably noticed, given my reviews of From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Island of the Blue Dolphins, and The Egypt Game. When my dad saw that we were reading Island of the Blue Dolphins, he told us how much he enjoyed both that book and another as a child, one called My Side of the Mountain (1959) by Jean Craighead George.
It is about a boy named Sam who runs away from his home in New York City to live alone in the Catskills Mountains. He is tired of city life, and his parents tell him about a family farm in the country that had long been abandoned. Sam travels out of town, finds the farm, and begins to live off of the land. The book is every child’s fantasy, to live for one’s self, to be without rules and parents, and to be strong and successful on one’s own. The author mentioned in her introduction that she and her daughter had both gone through phases of wanting to run away from home and live in the woods alone, so she wrote this book as a fulfillment of that wish.
The book delivers. Sam, of course, has studied and knows a lot about living off of the land. He is able to fish, gather nuts and greens and berries, hunt animals, and train his own hawk, Frightful. He takes her from the nest as a baby, and trains her to hunt for him. He builds his house inside of a large tree, and has quite the camp and life alone in the woods.
My favorite part was his realization of the amazing little community he had joined. He learned to watch the animals and remember their rhythms. He found how busy and purposeful they all were, from the “Baron” weasel to the outcast raccoon, to the birds and mice and squirrels. He even watched the insects. Sam learned to value the natural world for more than its spoils, and he vows to never kill an animal without need. He hunts rabbits, makes turtle soup, cooks acorn pancakes, and tosses salads. He learns to cook and survive on only what he needs, rather than being gluttonous and taking too much. His trick for getting deer and their leather is to watch hunters during hunting season, get to their kills before they do, cover and hide them so the hunters can’t find them, and then return for the carcass later. It’s pretty funny. And as rumors of a mystery mountain boy circulate in local newspapers, hunters testify that their game had gone missing due to this unseen boy.
Sam meets a few people during his adventure. One is a high school English teacher, whom Sam believes to be an escaped convict at first because the police come with sirens blazing to the mountain when Sam runs into him. He calls him Bando, but soon discovers that he isn’t a criminal. Bando returns during spring breaks and at Christmases to celebrate with Sam. He makes friends with a boy from town, the town librarian, a woman picking strawberries for jam, and a folk singer/songwriter. Bando eventually starts bringing Sam the newspaper clippings, which is how he learns about his notoriety as a mystery mountain boy.
Sam’s dad also visits during Christmas, and the novel ends with his whole family arriving from New York City to live near him and learn to live off the land as well. It is an idealistic ending, but one that probably wouldn’t be true. I mean, the whole book likely couldn’t happen, for I don’t know many parents who would allow their children so much autonomy.
I know that if my children ran away from home to live off the land, I wouldn’t allow it. I would worry too much and a large-scale search would immediately be launched if I thought they were missing. However, I do try to allow my kids other avenues of testing their boundaries and learning to be independent. For example, after visiting the zoo last week, my youngest daughter and I drove through a McDonald’s to get some ice cream. As we pulled around the back of the building and waited in a long line on that sunny afternoon, we noticed a man “working hard,” as my daughter would say, fixing the back door frame with a power tool and a step stool. She decided that she wanted to talk with him. So she rolled down her window and called out to him. “Hello? Hello?” Normally, my reaction, as an introvert, would be to tell her to stop it, and I would feel embarrassed. But I decided not to say a word and to let it play out. The man ended up not hearing her and we pulled up in line too quickly, but I liked seeing her test her social skills as a five-year-old and learning to talk with people that we may not normally see in our everyday lives. This is a small example, but I feel it is important to let our children explore safely and to reach out when they are brave enough to try.
Everybody should read My Side of the Mountain if they haven’t already. I did not read this one as a child, but I wish I had. It reminded me of reading Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, an outdoor wilderness adventure I enjoyed immensely. My daughter and I both looked forward to reading this together each night. We hope to read the sequel.