Six decades ago, in a hamlet in rural northern Minnesota, a preteen boy felt lost. His parents were "the town drunks" of Thief River Falls, says Gary Paulsen, leaving him without direction, ambition or self-esteem. He says he was on the road to becoming "one messed-up juvenile delinquent -- no doubt about it."
Then the town librarian took an interest in him and introduced him to the world of books.
"Reading," he says, "saved my life."
That rescue-by-book may give Paulsen, a beloved author of young adult fiction, something in common with a boy who made headlines around the world yesterday. A team of rescuers found Michael Auberry, the 12-year-old Boy Scout who had been missing in the rugged wilderness of western North Carolina for four days, alive and well, if a bit shaken and dehydrated.
According to his father, Kent Auberry, a key to the boy's survival might have been a book Michael spent a few weeks reading several years ago: Hatchet, a realistic novel by Paulsen that has attained the status of a young adult classic since its publication in 1988.
Hatchet tells the story of 13-year-old Brian Robeson, who survives a plane crash in the Canadian wilderness only to have to fend for himself for 54 days. Brian lives by using patience, resisting panic and approaching the problem of survival one challenge at a time.
"For a lot of kids, especially preteen boys, it's one of the first school-assigned books they love," says Nichole Gilbert of the Young Adult Library Services Association, which granted Paulsen, the author of nearly 200 books, its Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in 1997. "This bears out what we believe, that young adult literature isn't just fluff. It can contain entertaining, accurate, important information."
Hatchet's sudden re-emergence into the spotlight makes it the latest book to figure in a real-life drama since hostage Ashley Smith read part of The Purpose-Driven Life to her captor, Brian Nichols, in Atlanta two years ago. An Amazon.com spokesman said one edition of Hatchet leapt nearly 1,000 places in popularity on the Web site in one hour yesterday afternoon.
For his part, Paulsen is simply thrilled. Reached at his home in the Alaskan bush yesterday, he sounded both startled and grateful.
"I live in the middle of nowhere," he said with a laugh, "where it's awfully quiet, and all of a sudden my phone's ringing off the hook. This is such a surprise.
"I give the boy -- it's Michael, right? -- all the credit. I've written about the 'rule of threes.' You can survive three weeks without food, three days without water, three minutes without air. He did it right. He didn't panic. He found water somewhere. I'm so glad."
As of yesterday, no one knew what part Michael's knowledge of Hatchet played in the rescue, but he must have applied principles Paulsen made certain to highlight in the book. "If you read it," the author said, "it starts off with [the main character] panicking, then overcoming that. It's crucial to remain calm, to apply what you know simply and rationally."
Paulsen learned those lessons firsthand. As a boy, he dealt with the chaos of his home life in Thief River Falls not just by losing himself in books, but also by "giving himself to the forest," where he taught himself the very survival skills his fictional alter ego puts to use. According to a review of Hatchet from the School Library Journal, "Brian learns patience -- to watch, listen and think before he acts -- as he attempts to build a fire, to fish and hunt, and to make his home under a rock overhang safe and comfortable."
In interviews given during the search operation for his son, Kent Auberry sounded certain that Michael, a veteran of eight overnight camping trips and a confident, contemplative young man, would remember from his Scout training that it's possible to keep warm by covering oneself with leaves. Nighttime temperatures dipped below freezing during the ordeal.
Librarians in Maryland were not surprised that Michael was familiar with Hatchet, which won a coveted Newbery Honor for young adult fiction in 1988.
"It has adventure, humor and a great story," says Lynn Wheeler, director of the Carroll County Public Library. Paulsen "never talks down to his readers. He connects." Numerous study guides to Hatchet are available to teachers, including one by Paulsen, and scholars of young adult literature have argued that its lessons are universal.
So does its core audience. "The meaning of this book," reads a child's review on Amazon.com, "was not to show how to survive on an island if your plane crashes. It shows how to be strong no matter how difficult life gets."
Paulsen says he never set out to be a writer. But in running away from home at 14, traveling with carnivals, working as a ranch hand and finally moving back to the remote Minnesota woods, as he embraced survival skills of many kinds, it came to him that writing is humanity's best way of preserving the information that matters most.
"If we don't pass along our knowledge in writing," he said yesterday, "we can't survive from generation to generation."