February 18, 2010


Woods Runner. By Gary Paulsen. Wendy Lamb Books. $15.99.

Flightsend. By Linda Newbery. David Fickling Books. $15.99.

     One war that rarely gets historical-fiction treatment in books for teenagers is the American Revolution. Gary Paulsen sets out to correct that situation in Woods Runner, a gritty and reasonably believable story of a 13-year-old boy who goes on a long journey to try to rescue his family, taken prisoner by the British. The book is a quest-and-self-discovery story overlaid on a tale of the horrific realities of life in wartime. The novel’s protagonist, Samuel, believes the war – initially largely in the form of rumors – is far away from the Pennsylvania town where he, his parents and his baby sister live. But the conflict’s reality and brutality are brought home to him soon enough, as British soldiers and Indians attack for no apparent reason, killing the neighbors and taking Samuel’s family away as prisoners. Trying to understand what happened, Samuel asks why, and is told, “Redcoats doing it because they’s redcoats and ain’t worth a tinker’s damn. Follerin’ orders. Indians doing it because they was hired to do it. They’s Iroquois, most of ‘em work for the English, always have, always will.” And that is about all the explanation Samuel gets – but one thing he knows is that he must set out toward British headquarters, in New York City, to find and free his kin. Samuel gets help from fellow colonists throughout his journey, and sees again and again the brutality of the British and those who fight with them – Hessian mercenaries worst of all. Paulsen structures the book partly as an adventure story and partly as a history lesson, introducing chapters with short factual accounts of such elements of the war as the alliances in the world at the time; what happened to the wounded; why American morale was usually higher than British, even though the colonists were far more poorly equipped; what happened to war orphans; forms of covert communication; and much more. A great deal of the information in these introductory pages is at least as interesting as the story itself: more American soldiers died in prison than in actual combat; invisible ink was commonly used to protect information; prisoners of war got half the rations of British soldiers; and so on. But the presentation – separating the factual elements from Samuel’s story – makes the book somewhat choppy; and Samuel’s eventual success seems rather farfetched, although readers will certainly root for him all the way. In the end, Paulsen does a good job of providing little-known background on the American Revolution, although in his storytelling role, he really makes only Samuel come alive – using other characters to flesh out the story and make specific points about the war.

     Flightsend is a tale of modern Britain and of a battle within a family, not a fight to preserve or rescue one. Gritty and forthright in its own way, it is the story of 14-year-old Charlie and her attempt to adjust to her mother’s decision to remake their lives after the birth of a stillborn daughter. Charlie’s father had left her and her mother, Kathy, when Charlie was an infant, and Kathy has been living with a man named Sean, whom Charlie likes a lot – and whom she would be happy to see her mother marry. But after Rose, the baby that would have been Sean’s and Kathy’s, dies – no specific cause is given – Kathy becomes distant toward Sean and virtually throws him out, citing their age difference (Sean is eight years younger) as the main reason. Charlie does not understand any of this and cannot accept it. “The abrupt snuffing out of Rose, and of all the possibilities of her future, was bad enough. Even worse was watching her mother punish herself and Sean, dismantling their life together with what seemed to Charlie a deliberate, callous obstinacy.” But her mother pays no attention to Charlie’s feelings and simply arranges a move to a property called Flightsend, which Kathy hopes will represent the end of running from her past and a chance to settle down. There is much of soap opera in Linda Newbery’s plot and in the multiple confrontations and tearful arguments among the characters. Sean continues trying – ultimately unsuccessfully – to repair things with Kathy; Charlie eventually discovers, not at all surprisingly, that she can move beyond heartache and find new friends and a new life for herself at Flightsend; the property’s name, of course, turns out to be entirely appropriate (although calling the book’s final chapter “Flight’s End” is really overdoing things); and Kathy does remake her life and find happiness, despite running roughshod over both her daughter and Sean – perhaps getting off rather too easily from the consequences of some of her decisions, although of course an author can take these plots where she wishes. Teens in broken homes or unconventional living arrangements may find much that is resonant in Flightsend, despite the obviousness of a great deal of the plotting and dialogue. Others may enjoy it simply as a good, solid tearjerker of a novel. But despite its veneer of realism, it comes across as a very manipulative book – both in Newbery’s treatment of her characters and in the way she lays things out for readers.

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