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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Paintings from the Cave, written by Gary Paulsen. Random House, 2011. $17.99 ages 10 and up

"Every Saturday and Wednesday she'd pick out three books - novels, graphic novels, picture books, poetry, history, short stories, plays, mysteries, travel guides,  equipment repair manuals, stories of aliens or myths or true crime. It didn't matter what she read.
What did matter was that when she read, she could forget how ugly her life was."

Gary Paulsen writes hilarious tales that have me tearing up, and always wanting to share them with others. He writes heartbreaking stories that have me doing the same thing, for very different reasons. I have such respect for his writing, his ability to tell a story and the range of work that he has published. From the superbly crafted and very funny Harris and Me to the compelling nonfiction descriptions of his life with dogs and on boats to the overwhelming grief of Soldier's Heart, the story of a boy whose belief that fighting a war will make him a man only to discover that the man he has become is broken and longing for death, Gary Paulsen is always on my radar.

When I saw that he had written three short novellas about kids whose life experiences mirror his own, I knew it would be good. I did not know it would leave me spent, and uplifted. The writer has often talked about his own difficult childhood and the discovery that made life worth living:

"But then art and dogs saved me.
First reading, then writing. First friend-pets, then sled dogs.
They gave me hope that I wouldn't always be stuck in the horror
of my childhood, made me believe that there could be more
to my life."

What he has done in this incredible book is give voice to three children whose stories are terrifying, and inspirational. Jake is one of those innocent kids living in a neighborhood filled with crime, hate, poverty, and gangs. He forces himself to be constantly on the move:

"Sometimes you move right, sometimes left, in the dark, out of the light, always moving.
You stop moving, you're done."

He lives with his aunt, who never even truly sees him. He does his best to avoid any contact with the gang members always on the lookout for new recruits. He has a hiding place that allows him some peace of mind, and he spends time with Layla. Layla's lot in life parallels Jake's. Adding to her horror is that she is pregnant (at 15) and about ready to deliver her baby. A sculptor living across the street in a building that is a part of urban renewal befriends him, offering him a place to spend some time, food and a chance to try his hand at art. Jake cannot stop moving for long, always fearing the repercussions. The ending is heart stopping.

Jo-Jo is living a nightmare that includes alcoholism, sexual and emotional abuses, and constant fear. Her dogs are her lifeline, keeping her safe and offering trust in a life where they has been none.  As she sketches them, and is always cognizant of their love for her she is protected from the hurt that she faces daily at school. In Rose she recognizes a worthy companion, and so do the dogs:

"Rose is a good thing," she told the dogs, who were still staring into the woods after Rose. "But you already know that."

In the final story we learn about Erik and Jamie, brothers on their own despite their young ages. Erik has saved them from the terror of their life as it was...they never talk about 'what happened before'. Now, they live hand-hand-to-mouth and in a variety of places. Erik works hard to keep them fed and sheltered, and wants to save enough money so that they can find a permanent home. Gary Paulsen tells a remarkable story of love and strength, of survival in a world that is full of uncertainty. Jamie finds solace in his art, while his brother works long hours to provide for them:

"Because he knows I have to draw or I'll lose it. When I'm hungry, cold, dirty, or sick to death of wondering where we're going to sleep tonight, I can pull out one of my sketchbooks. A little while later, I'm okay again."

Their love knows no bounds. They have each other and a belief in their future:

"But for today, the sun is coming up and my fifteen finished drawings are in the drop box and Annie Oakley stands next to me, leaning into my leg, and we're going home to see Erik.
Erik's Rule # 11: Good enough is enough for us."

Enough NEED to have this book!

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