When our sons were younger, we listened to Gary Paulsen’s classic adventure novel Hatchet on audio. All four of us were so engrossed that we went through all of the sequels on subsequent road trips – every one was as exciting as the first. So, when I heard that Paulsen’s latest book for middle-graders, This Side of Wild, was nominated for the National Book Award last year, I couldn’t wait to read it. This slim nonfiction volume of five animal-related stories from Paulsen’s own life is fascinating and absolutely hilarious!
Paulsen has written extensively about wilderness survival and his own sled dogs, but here he includes a series of short, sometimes vaguely connected stories about a wide variety of animals, both wild and domestic, that he has encountered in his life. He starts with a ragged little toy poodle named Corky that he rescued from the pound in Alaska. Corky was awash in medical problems, including having only three teeth left. Despite his size and condition, though, Corky turns out to be a zealous protector of Gary and ends up saving his life rather than the other way around.
Other stories tell about a dog named Gretchen who could sit at the kitchen table and “converse” with Gary, seemingly understanding everything he said, and Paulsen’s experiences on a sheep farm helping to birth hundreds of lambs with assistance from a border collie named Louise. There are also horses, birds and bees, a Mynah bird named Betty, a grizzly bear, a very smart jackrabbit, and ravens that seem to follow Gary everywhere. Every story is interesting and very, very funny. Some are absolutely incredible, and all of them highlight amazing things animals have done and the special connections that can grow between animals and humans.
I thoroughly enjoyed this quick read. As I read each chapter, I often laughed out loud and made my husband stop reading his book to listen to me read a passage aloud (though I also insisted he has to read Paulsen’s book, too!). It sometimes reminded me of a Bill Bryson book written for kids. It’s a fun, fascinating, and hilarious collection of real-life stories that prove that truth really is stranger than fiction. Paulsen has once again lived up to his stellar reputation.
118 pages, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers