By Gary Paulsen
Gary Paulsen’s final novel, “Northwind” — a tale of survival as masterfully understated as the man himself — brings the author’s career, and his life, full circle. Where his 1986 novel “Hatchet” was about an earned connection to the land, “Northwind” is about an earned connection to the sea. Earned because the main characters of both must face the beauty and brutality of nature, as well as come to terms with its indifference.
Like many classic tales, “Northwind” begins with an orphan — here a child named Leif, of parents “of no remembered name.” The time period is that mystical half-light of history when Scandinavia was little more than scattered Norse villages; when wisdom was woven with superstition much as the land is interlaced with fjords.
When 12-year-old Leif’s isolated town is infected by a lethal contagion, he and a younger child are put in a canoe and sent off by themselves, to escape the sickness. Only Leif survives. He quickly realizes he had “prepared for death” but “not for living.” If he’s going to prevail, he’ll have to actively seek out every lesson the natural world has to offer.
“Go north,” Leif was told. North. A vector with no destination. He will soon understand that having a direction is far more important than having a destination when one’s journey is into the unknown.
Along the way, Leif learns a sense of purpose by watching the behavior of orcas. He learns to survive tidal bore waves by watching how dolphins play in them. He learns what it truly means to live by watching a bay full of blue and gray whales “attempting flight and falling back” yet continuing to joyously breach in absolute defiance of their failure to fly. These lessons are deceptively simple yet as deep as the glacier-carved inlets he travels.
He discovers that touching the fluke of an orca is crossing a bridge between beings. He notices how perfectly choreographed an orca feeding is — with whales and salmon, ravens and eagles. He’s awed by the violence and the balance, and by an epiphany (after an island brush with a bear) that he is not a part of that balance but longs to be, prompting him to make a vow to Odin: “I will join with and of this place. I will see. And learn. And know this place and all 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 trip north is “a movement through worlds.” And although these worlds are earthly ones, they’re as fresh and surprising as distant stars. We share Leif’s wonder at encountering a massive blue iceberg, and his terror of a tidal whirlpool powerful enough to stand a giant tree on end. Ultimately, readers are left with an overwhelming sense that the ocean has a heartbeat, that all things in and around it are not just connected but essential, and that we, too, can be a part of it, if only we take the time to learn how.
Leif chronicles his journey by carving “thought-pictures” on pieces of wood, making the story a metaphor for the author’s life. In fact, Leif’s most wondrous moments were distilled from Paulsen’s own experiences as he sailed the world.
We lost Paulsen too soon. His journey north took him past that aurora-lit horizon. But we can still see him, and hear him, in the thought-pictures he left in these pages: “Now there is no line that separates me from the canoe, from what I have become. The boat is my skin and body and mind and I am the water and wood and the sun and the birds. All one. All together as one. I am part of it now. Part of all of it. I have become.” In Paulsen’s own words, a grand and worthy journey completed.