I came to this novel by accident, when a student I tutor chose it for a book report. We agreed to read the first six chapters before our next meeting. He read ten pages or so, declared it two thumbs down, and chose another book. I, on the other hand, read this young adult novel in a couple of sittings. I was captivated by it.
Think of this novel as a PG-rated Brokeback Mountain. It also falls into the genre of “novels that would be about a paragraph long if the protagonist had a cell phone” – a genre I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, since another student is reading The Catcher in the Rye, which has to be the grand wizard of the NTWBAAPLIAPHACP genre. The premise is that Tink, one of the Barron family’s longtime hired workers, gets cancer and can’t spend the summer in the haymeadow with the sheep as per usual. The other hired man, Cawley, is needed back at the farm for other work, so fourteen year-old John Barron’s father decides that it is time for John to take the sheep to the haymeadow. When John protests, his father rattles off the sorts of badass things he himself used to do when he was fourteen, and for good measure he throws in some references to “the old man,” the family patriarch – John’s great-grandfather – who settled the family’s land in Montana when it was nothing but wilderness, all when he wasn’t much older than John is now. So John agrees – and the only advice he’s given is “sheep have a way of dying for no reason.”
Cawley escorts John and the dogs, sheep, and horses to the meadow, and almost immediately after he leaves the shit show starts. We’re talking coyotes. We’re talking rattlesnakes. We’re talking bears. We’re talking flash floods. We’re talking fourteen year-old boys doing emergency surgery on dogs. The majority of the novel takes place during the first two days John spends on the mountain. The writing in this section is quick, simple, and immediate – Gary Paulsen pulls off “show, don’t tell” better than any writer I’ve read in recent months. Ironically, a week before my student introduced me to this novel, I had been trying to help him understand that fast-paced scenes should be written with short, simple sentences and slower, more thoughtful scenes are best written with longer and more grammatically complex sentences. I know it’s hard for a ten year-old to internalize a principle like this one, but I usually get around this stumbling block by having them write fast-paced scenes with short sentences and then pointing out the effect after they’re finished. My student was having trouble understanding this idea even after writing his own fast-paced scene, and like any good student he was refusing to just take my word for it. This novel proved to be a perfect model of this principle – though my student did not reap the benefit of the example because he refused to read it. Kids are funny that way.
But seriously, take my word for it. This book is good. I think my 21st-century Silicon Valley student saw the notion of a father sending a son to spend three months in an isolated meadow with three hundred sheep as a step away from hobbits and dementors, but this is all the more reason for children (and adults) to read this novel. I think many children think of “the old days” as one large monolithic thing, existing only as counterpoint to “now,” and reading is one of the best ways to train a person away from this kind of thinking. When I was reading this novel, I couldn’t possibly imagine how it would end. Even with only a few short chapters to go, John was still wrangling sheep and dogs and floods on his second day in the haymeadow. But the novel does resolve, and resolve well. John has grown up fetishizing “the old man” – the great-grandfather who secured the family’s land using nothing but resolve and rugged individualism, constantly comparing himself to his ancestor and coming up short. At the end of the novel, John’s father visits. He debunks much of the mythology about the old man and about the Wild West in general, and while this is never stated I got the impression that John’s father understands that there is something a little bit cruel (empowering, yes – but also cruel) about isolating a fourteen year-old on a mountain for three months. By extension, this novel suggests that tradition and custom are no reason to continue to do things that are destructive and unkind. John’s father is a cowboy of the old school and does not verbalize these thoughts, but his visit itself and the family history he shares with John while he’s there made them clear for me.
I recommend this novel to both children and adults without hesitation – it’s a model of excellent writing in the old-fashioned show-don’t-tell, limited-omniscient style.