Thursday, January 26, 2012

Gary Paulsen's Winterkill

Winterkill (1976) is one of Paulsen’s harder to find books. It got a lot of negative reviews when it came out that actually steered the prolific Paulsen away from fiction for a few years. The reason for this has to do with the fact that it is one of Paulsen’s most hard-hitting tales. Not so atypical of young adult books from the late 1970’s (see my entries on the books Kin Platt was writing this same year) the ending is both unhappy and violent. What is often overlooked is that this is also one of Paulsen’s best. Set in Minnesota, like many of his earlier novels, the themes in this book appear in later Paulsen novels that received more acclaim. It is also the first appearance of Carl who is discussed in more depth in Paulsen’s novel Dancing Carl (1983). The cover image by Richard Cuffari, one of the most used cover artists for children’s books from the 1970’s, might be misleading. While I do like the art, Cuffari’s illustrations might be better suited to the likes of Betsy Byars and other authors who wrote realistic stories for a slightly younger age group.

Here is my haphazard summary (apologies to Mr. Paulsen):

The unnamed narrator of the story is a 14 year old kid who has had it rough. His parents are alcoholics. Later, he ends up working on a farm for a cruel religious man who tries to kill him. He is “saved” by a very tough and often cruel cop. The cop, Duda, takes him to another farm where he works hard and is first exposed to kind people. This doesn’t last for long. When he goes back to live with his parents, things are worse than ever.

The boy’s situation begins to become more normal when he meets a good-looking girl named Irene that goes to his school. After he kisses her, he is in love. He even gets a job at a bowling alley so that he can have money to impress her. But the job turns out to be nasty, and he frequently receives beatings by the greaser kids who work there. Later, Irene starts dating a more popular boy who gets her pregnant. After they break up, she turns to the narrator and asks him to marry her.

Still in love with Irene, the boy decided that he will need money if they are going to be married and have a child. So he decided to rob a neighbor’s house. Duda catches him in the act. But instead of reporting the crime, Duda attempts to reform the boy in his own way. The boy begins accompanying Duda on his nighttime outings. They get into habit of hunting from the car, rabbits mostly. He learns to understand Duda’s hard edges and begins to see the man behind all the toughness. In a sense, Duda represents the father figure he never had. The boy begins to care for Duda until he witnesses Duda violently murder two bankrobbers.

I won’t give away the ending. I’ll just say this. If you like Tiltawhirl John and Paulsen’s other books, you have to check out Winterkill. But good luck finding it…. the book fetches prices between $60 and $100 on the used book market. Definitely another discard treasure!

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