Archive for Blood Mountain

Gary Paulsen & Me: An Appreciation

“I owe everything I am 
and everything I will ever be
to books.”
— Gary Paulsen

Gary Paulsen passed in October, 2021, and I wanted to hang back and wait a bit before bringing up my very slight connection to the great writer. I didn’t know the man, we’ve never met. And unlike others, I’ve only read a few of his books, all as an adult.

My 2019 novel, Blood Mountain, was compared in three separate reviews to Paulsen’s Hatchet. No reviewer suggested that my book was as good as Hatchet, and certainly not as important (arriving, as it did, 30-plus years later). But they noted that I was working the same vein as Paulsen’s masterwork. Writing in that tradition of wilderness survival and, as is the nature of such an endeavor, within the tradition of wilderness respect and appreciation.

Both books are, in their way, love stories.

The quotes on Blood Mountain:

“Fans of Gary Paulsen’s books will likely be hooked from page one.” — Publishers Weekly.

“Preller combines brave characters with vivid descriptions of the perilous mountain, grasping readers’ emotions in the same way as Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet series.” — Booklist.

“A thrilling purchase for middle grade collections, perfect for fans of adventure novels by Jean Craighead George, Peg Kehret, and Gary Paulsen.” — School Library Journal

What I admire most about Paulsen is his engagement with the natural world. He was an outdoorsman, comfortable and expertly capable in the wild. I don’t have 1/10th of his skills and knowledge. But in my own way, I try to see things, appreciate and name the trees, the birds, the world around me. That’s what he offered us, more than anything: his own innate sense of wonder and respect.

There’s a deceptively simple line by Roger Tory Peterson, the artist and writer known for the famous Peterson Guides. He said, “The more you look, the more you see.”

I believe Gary Paulsen was telling us the very same thing. And his message became, for me, all the more relevant as we drifted further and further from the real world into cyber-whatever. And as the natural world became more endangered — witness the great species die-off — and as we all became more entangled in our phones and apps and the algorithms of social media, I find myself holding closer to the message of writers like Gary Paulsen, Bill McKibben, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gary Snyder, Thich Nhat Hanh, Peter Wohlleben, Jane Goodall, Robert Macfarlane, and many more.

Paulsen said to us, in effect: Go outside. Look, see, love every blessed living thing.

I’m honored to enjoy the slightest, most gossamer connection to such a compassionate writer.

Here’s a very short excerpt from Blood Mountain:

Grace spends much of that day gathering anything that will soften her bed. She works doggedly, with purpose. Grace saws at the branches of a hemlock, scraping her knuckles, covering her hands with sap and dirt. Hauls the boughs up, which is not easy with her injuries. She spreads the curved branches with the ends stuck in the dirt, so there’s a slight hump in the middle. Then she adds a mattress of moss and soft boughs.

By the end, she is exhausted. Her entire body throbs.

She lies down, breathes in the piney air, satisfied. And for that brief moment, Grace doesn’t feel lost anymore. 

Blood Mountain is a Junior Library Guild Selection.

Jimmy Pointing at Things: The Latest in a Continuing Series

If someone points a camera at me, I will reflexively point at something else. 

Every time. 

Don’t worry, it’s not loaded.

Here I am celebrating a “masked” outdoor children’s book festival in Chappaqua, NY. Despite the safety precautions — or more correctly, because of the safety precautions — it felt like a victory for community, for literacy, for normalcy. 

Nice to spend the day surrounded by book people.

Camping Photo, John Muir Quote: Two for the Price of None!

“In every walk with nature,

one receives far more

than he seeks.”

John Muir

 

I enjoyed a weekend of camping with my wife and daughter and our incredible dog, Echo. We brought a canoe and two kayaks. And let me tell you, it got cold at night, close to freezing! I felt a twinge of guilt staring at our big roaring fires in the verdant Northeastern woods, while those devastating wildfires out west still burn. My heart goes out to all those people and living creatures that have been displaced, their homes destroyed, landscapes (temporarily) ravaged. My wife had a childhood home burn to the ground. She’d been out at basketball practice, only to return to a worried crowd gathered outside, her father in tears. So many people must be experiencing that same tumult of emotion and loss. 

So, yes, a moment for that.

But also for John Muir, and the value of getting out into nature, feeling it, hearing those owls at night, the coyotes surprisingly close, and the ghostly calls of the loons across the lake. 

 

Like-minded readers might enjoy my middle-grade wilderness survival story about siblings, Grace and Carter, who are lost in the mountains. A 2019 Library Guild Selection.

 

The Depiction of Police in My Books: A Reflection

I realized the other day that police officers played supporting roles in my two most recent middle-grade novels. In Blood Mountain, Makayla is a Ranger with the Division of Forest Protection, a young Black woman, Brooklyn raised; she is fierce and compassionate and awesome in every way, and she searches tirelessly for the two lost hikers in the story (I wanted that idea in this book, that if you’re lost in the wilderness, we won’t stop looking for you). In Upstander (Coming in Spring, 2021), Officer Goldsworthy, a Black man, returns from Bystander and again plays a small but crucial role. He’s a local cop with two bad knees working at the middle school. A strong but quiet presence in the lives of those students. There’s a beautiful scene, a conversation between him and Mary, the book’s main protagonist. I love what he tells her, his compassion for her brother’s struggles with addiction. Anyway, no agenda, it just happened: two cops, both decent and kind and capable, doing good work. That’s what I put out into the world in those books.
Below, “Chapter 13 [Mayakla]” from Blood Mountain. The chapters in this book are very short, and this one is no exception. It’s our initial introduction to this character. By the way, it’s a truism in children’s literature that young people don’t want to read about adult characters. Yet I’ve resisted that idea, while recognizing the problems (and cliches) when adults enter these stories and fix problems. So while I maintain that it is important and acceptable to include complete, fully-formed adult characters in these books, it’s important that the young characters have agency and ownership of their actions. I’m just saying that some folks might not think you can get away with a chapter, however short, that strictly about an adult. But I give readers more credit than that. 
13
[Makayla]
Makayla Devaroix awakens in the dark of her modest cabin to the sound of the alarm. Rise and blur. But first, coffee. A strong pot. Her mind is cobwebs. Even the sun doesn’t want to get up. Makayla is twenty-seven years old, with smooth brown skin and wavy black hair. Her brows are thick and striking above gray eyes. Fit and strong, she moves with an athlete’s economy and grace. She cleans the filter, pours the water, spoons the coffee grounds without thought; she could do this in her sleep and practically does. She sits on a low stool by the coffee machine, watching as it fills. She lives alone, does not own a television. The laptop is enough for podcasts, Spotify, and the occasional romantic comedy.
Yesterday had been a long, hard day, and today looked like it would be worse. She had gotten the call sometime around 2:00 A.M. from dispatch: a kayaker had gone missing out by a string of ponds off Paradise Lake. Makayla double-checked the map. It would take an hour in her patrol vehicle just to get close. She’d meet up with another ranger at the pull-off. They’d split up and begin a basic type 1 search. There were tributaries to cover, plus the kayaker might have carried his boat, or portaged, a short distance between navigable waters. The kayaker had been alone, an experienced backpacker, but had failed to return home as expected. Probably it was nothing. Or maybe he ran into real trouble out there. No matter what, it could take a full day to find the answer. 
If the body was discovered at the bottom of the lake, which is a thing that sometimes happens to bodies out here in parkland, it would require state police scuba divers and more gear and a whole lot more coffee to close this sad chapter. Makayla never got used to the sight of hauling a body out of the water, the skin gone gray, the eyes and lips eaten away by fish. With staff cuts and slashed budgets, Makayla spends most of her week chasing emergencies: lost hikers, injured adventurers, drowned teenagers, and wildfires. It’s simple math. The park is getting more crowded than ever before, particularly in the popular parts, with fewer rangers to cover the more remote territory. More and more people come in, knowing less and less. Impossible to do the job right. She’d seen flip-flops on mountaintops, hikers shivering from frostbite wearing only shorts and a T-shirt, clueless as to how to read a simple compass. Dumb as a box of nails. Most egregious to Makayla, they failed to respect the mountains. She finished her cup with a long gulp, poured the remainder of the pot into a travel mug, laced up her boots, and headed out.
This was her dream job. The city girl who majors in environmental science and forestry in college — discovers she loves it, needs it — and decides to become a ranger. Still true, though harder, and lonelier, than she ever imagined. 

 

A Dog Leads With Its Nose

Maggie, my daughter, has an eye for photos. Especially when it comes to our sweet Echo.

This remarkable perspective, his glorious snout, brought to mind the dog Sitka in my recent wilderness adventure novel, Blood Mountain

To write about that character, a mutt lost in the mountains with two human siblings, Grace and Carter, I did some research. Though I’ve owned many dogs and have observed them closely over the years, I didn’t feel ready to write about them. I knew that I didn’t want to humanize Sitka, do a Disney treatment; instead, I wanted to honor the sheer dogginess of the creature. And when it comes to dogs, I learned, it all begins with the nose.

What follows are two brief excerpts from the book that hone close to Sitka’s own glorious snout. 

from Chapter 23 . . .

After a time, the dog moves away, climbs down off the rock face, down into the sun-stippled understory beneath the great shade-cooled umbrella of leaves. A hunger gnaws at Sitka’s belly like a twisting, tightening coil of wire. Imagine if everything a human sees — every color, shape, and texture — arrived with a specific odor. The red of that flower’s petals, the deep-rutted bark of a poplar, the light brown of a wren’s chest, the dropped acorns, the pale underside of a leaf, the shimmering sky itself: every pixel that an eye apprehends, for a dog those details come with singular odor, as different as green from red, blue from yellow. When Sitka sniffs, it is the same as Grace opening her eyes. Sitka inhales and her tail sweeps and she knows a man has passed near here some time ago, moving in an easterly direction. A mosaic of smells, each one a discovery. The creatures of this world announce themselves to her nose: I am. The dog goes to the slow-trickling stream. Movement among the ferns. Sitka stealthily moves to investigate, prodded by the ache in her belly. Plunges her nose deep into the living green world, inhales the data points, sniffs out the whiskered, stout rodent. Pounces with front paws outstretched, and again — there! success! — bites down, gulps, gone.

A huntress!

Sweet vole!

And even in that instant, the dog attends to one who lies restless in half sleep; a soft moan, she wakes. Meal in belly — hair and tail and skull — Sitka will be at Grace’s side by the time she opens her eyes. 

And from Chapter 34 . . . 

The dog smells everything, recent past and the acute present, for a mile in all directions, depending on air currents. The data overload is immense. Mind-boggling to process. But one odor comes clearest. Though Sitka has no direct experience of “mountain lion,” that named thing, something in her DNA recognizes the lurking danger, the predator prowling in the dark, unseen and unheard.

But not unsmelled.

Therefore: known.

An old enemy.

Sitka vacuums in the odors, sifts through the information. The creatures with names she cannot know: squirrel, vole, owl, mole, mouse, rabbit, hawk, raccoon. Another faint whiff troubles the dog: man. A desperate man has recently moved through this area, the aroma of stealth and haste.

And another thing: the trees themselves, hosts to so much life. Tree limbs and tree fingers, tree thoughts and tree intentions. The interconnected roots, thirsty and entangled, talking in their ancient tongues, passing along what they know to each other. This is the wild place, the space of time-before, and now the dog forgets recents pleasures of soft cushions and screen doors, fresh water bowls and proffered treats, long drives with the windows down.

Dog recalls wolf.

The time-before.

The snaggletooth. The vicious bite and muzzle shake. The primal memory of ripped flesh and the warm taste of red blood. The fresh kill.

“What do you smell?” Grace asks.

How does the dog answer?

Sitka sits alert, rumbles low, hackles raised, muscles taut. Danger, her body replies.

She senses danger.