by Ernest Thompson Seton
Yan is an unhappy boy at home. He longs to be in the woods. He\’s all about nature- eager to sketch animals, lingering to stare in front of a taxidermist\’s shop, making himself a hideout in a thicket, wanting to learn all about local wildlife and plants. But those around him dismiss his interests; he is supposed to stick to his schoolwork and help with chores. However after struggling with a long illness, his parents send him to live with some relatives on a farm, in hopes of improving his health. He is very surprised and pleased to discover that his cousin is also \’keen on woodscraft\’. The boys have very different temperaments and skill sets, but become friends through their common interest. They play in the woods any chance they get, and eventually gain permission from their parents to spend a few weeks camping out.
With the help of an old trapper who befriends them, the boys make a tipi and set up a proper camp. This trapper had once lived with a native american tribe, so the boys pester him to teach them all he knows about \’being Injun\’. And he does. They learn how to make arrows, start a fire with sticks, track game and all sorts of small details like how to make smoke draw properly out of the tipi, how to skin an animal, tan hides, stuff a bird, make moccasins, set a live animal trap etc…. They have a strict code of conduct among themselves- predators and animals considered pests are fair game, but killing things like songbirds is forbidden. However sometimes they get carried away with their sport and cut down trees to try and capture squirrels, for example. They make up all sorts of games to compete and improve their skills- really their marksmanship with bows and arrows are laughable at first. The detailed game of taking turns hiding and finding a dummy deer they made out of burlap and straw was delightful. By the end of the story they have befriended several other boys and even brought their disinterested parents into the camp to admire their accomplishments.
Aside from all the details about making a temporary living in the forest, the book is a good story about a bunch of kids, just being kids. They have their moments- staunch camaraderie, teasing and heated quarrels by turns. I really appreciated that each kid had a very distinct character. There is a sharp contrast between Yan and his brothers earlier in the story, too. The characters are drawn so nicely I wonder if Seton wrote them after people he really knew (or himself as a child?). It is also a great picture of what life was like for people in rural, relatively poor areas over a hundred years ago. Yan\’s family is not well off by any means, but he finds there is another level of poverty altogether when he visits an \’old witch\’ who lives in by herself in the woods. He admires this woman for her knowledge of herbs, but when he asks her for information finds that a lot of her lore is mixed with superstition, and when she invites him to stay for dinner he is horrified at the blatant lack of hygiene when she prepares food. The written vernacular can be a puzzle- it was amusing to read it out loud when sometimes I couldn\’t figure out in my head what people were saying. Especially the poor folks with their heavier slang and rough talk.
There are also ghost stories, a distracted coon hunt, and a bit of mystery to solve that exonerates a man who had for years been shunned by the community, righting a long-standing wrong. And so much more, but I\’ve got to stop writing.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It\’s not as long as the page count might make it seem- the print is fairly large and there are tons of drawings- bird tracks, animal prints, diagrams showing how things are made or built, profiles of ducks, humorous sketches and full-page illustrations. Incidentally, Seton\’s drawings of ducks showing how the species could be identified by characteristic markings seen from afar inspired the first bird field guide by Roger Tory Peterson.
Rating: 4/5 552 pages, 1903