376. Live or Die

The core story of Spirit Deer is survival, and the corollary is a complete absence of help.

It doesn’t happen that way much today. If you get lost in the woods, they send helicopters to bring you home. Yachts carry emergency beacons to fetch the Coast Guard. If there is a smashing at your door, call 911. Then hide in a closet. Be very quiet. The police will come soon.

It wasn’t like that when I was Tim’s age. 911 hadn’t been invented anywhere. The police were thirty miles away, and we didn’t have a telephone until I was fifteen. Cell phone? Don’t be silly.

That was the situation I was trying to create in Spirit Deer, both in the original adult version and the stripped down core story that became a juvenile. It wasn’t that I was trying to go back to an earlier era. 1975, or even the late 1980s when adult-Tim became young-Tim, was already closer to the world of my childhood than today. No, I don’t mean arithmetic. I mean that in 2017, it is hard to even imagine being alone.

In a lesser sense, I spent half my childhood alone. I would drive a tractor for hours every morning, eat a brief lunch with my dad, then spent more hours alone until the sun went down. My dad was always there, of course, on his tractor five hundred yards away on the other side of the field. He waved occasionally. That isn’t the same as being absolutely alone, but you are alone-with-your-thoughts, and you don’t have to talk. I liked that.

Being all the way alone, in the woods, hunting, tracking, and surviving, was something every boy of my generation wanted to do. And there were a lot of books to fuel the fantasy.

Most of the early Andre Nortons followed a pattern that looked like this: The young hero is the lowest member of a group that mistreats him. He is separated from them by circumstances no one could have predicted. For a time, he is alone. Then he reintegrates, tentatively, with a new and previously alien group. He does not remain alone, but being alone frees him, and gives him the strength to reenter society.

It is a primeval story. The young hunter sets out on his spirit journey, alone, to fast and endure great hardships, to gain his spirit animal, and return to his people as a man.

Fors, in Star Man’s Son, the first Norton I read, leaves his people because he is cast out for being different, goes on a great quest, finds a prize (knowledge, in this case) despite great hardship, and returns to his people. Only, he gets to take a telepathic puma on the trip with him. That’s even better than being alone.

Proving your manhood, whether you set out to do it, or it simply happens to you, is a big part of these books. A scholar might call them rite-of-passage novels.

I remember one book which I no longer have. A boy was living in a cabin in the woods and he was temporarily alone. I don’t remember where his father had gone. He got up in the morning, fried eggs on the wood stove, slipped an extra two between slices of toast, and put them in his coat pocket, picked up his rifle, and set out into the snowy woods.

I don’t remember the rest of the novel, but he set out. That was enough to make it great. There was a lot of setting-out in those books.

The best of them all was Two Hands and a Knife, the original version. (see post 309) Our hero (aka, the reader in disguise) has to join his parents, who have settled in a hundred miles away across the Canadian wilderness. So naturally, he packs his gear and his dog and sets out by canoe. Alone. (Except for his dog. Every boy needs a dog like that, unless he can find a telepathic puma.) There is a storm; he loses his canoe with all his gear. With the help of his dog, he makes it to shore and all he has is his two hands and his knife. And his dog.

Does it get any better than that?

Lets swing this all back to Tim, hanging in the tree in today’s Serial post, knowing that he has to either summon the strength to make it up to where the pine cones are, or he will die a slow and painful death of starvation. No one will help him. No one even knows where he is.

If this situation scares hell out of you, you are reading the wrong book. Self-sufficiency is useful. Knowing you can be alone, takes the power away from those who would call you different, and demand conformity. It is no small thing.

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