Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Revisiting the Mountain: Elizabeth George in 2014

George, Elizabeth. My Side of the Mountain.

I first read My Side of the Mountain as a child, when I was perhaps Sam Gribley's age. I didn't really identify with his dislike of the city, but if I hadn't had ballet classes to attend every week, I would have been very tempted to run away and try to imitate his adventures.

In our modern technological age, I love this book even more than I did as a child, though I fear--very slightly--for its existence. In terms of relatability, this book is now an antique. On the other hand, the book's very unrelatability makes it all the more important for the modern youth audience.

Last fall, I had an opportunity to re-read Walden with a group of modern high schoolers. They were fascinated at the beginning of the book, suggested that we go off to the mountains for a day, and expressed shock at the duration of Thoreau's experiment. For a single day (or even a week) traipsing into the wilderness sounds awesome. The daunting aspect of Thoreau's adventure (impossible to forget when reading My Side of the Mountain, because Sam is quickly dubbed "Thoreau" by an outdoorsy English professor) is its chronology. At the beginning of Walden, Thoreau builds a house and sets up his study in the woods, but by the fourth or fifth character he is repeating his philosophies and describing minutiae in rather painstaking detail. There is a wonder in this--we have lost some of this attention to detail--but also a weariness that can arise after prolonged exposure to the delights of the grasses and the fish and the woodsmen.

Unlike Walden, My Side of the Mountain avoids this monotony. In the first place, it is a great deal shorter than Thoreau's masterpiece. Significantly, it is also plot-driven rather than intent on description, and it is largely free from the philosophizing towards which Thoreau is so inclined. Where Thoreau's descriptions always have an agenda--and his encounters with the wilderness well-planned and easily performed--Sam is rightly concerned about surviving the winter in the forest. Unlike Thoreau, Sam does not send hours reading the Bible and great philosophers in contented solitude; instead, he occasionally visits a nearby library in order to acquire technical knowledge. When his trousers wear out, he struggles to make replacements using natural products. As fall settles on the mountain, he must make hard decisions about what food to store, and in what quantities.

Overall, My Side of the Mountain does not condemn society. Certainly Sam does not have positive encounters when he ventures into town in ragged garb or must gently detach himself from unwanted guests, but his frustrations are largely inferred rather than expanded upon. At the same time, George does still offer a philosophical message about the beauty (and dangers) of nature and the importance of family and friends. Sam's world may be one with which many modern readers would not identify, but the value of the deep relationships he forges with a small handful of caring individuals, like the family ties referenced both in his return to ancestral grounds and in his parents' determined efforts to become better acquainted with their son, can teach readers lessons that are just as important as those explained in such detail in Walden.

My Side of the Mountain should be read by people who love nature, but also by those who are blinded by social media and the hustle and bustle of everyday life. It is easily suitable for ages eight and up.

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