Monday, February 16, 2009

Review: My Side of the Mountain

My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George

This is an older book, originally published in 1959. It's written for young adults, but it is eminently readable by anyone. And if you're interested in foraging wild plants (or hunting small game or falconry or living off the land) then this is a sweet little novel you'll want to read.

Our hero, Sam Gribley, lives with his family in New York City. He learns about living off the land by reading books in the New York Public Library and by talking to others. When the story takes place, he's probably about 14 or so. Sam decides to run away from home and go find his great-grandfather's farm in the Catskill Mountains. He tells his father that this is what he's doing and the old man says, go to it, son! Every boy should run away.

So off Sam goes, first by train and then by hitching rides. With him he has a penknife, a ball of cord, an axe, and $40 and the clothes on his back (two or three layers of clothes). He heads to the small town near where the farm is located, goes to the library and with the help of the friendly librarian, finds out where the farm is on the mountain.

Sam is, at first, scared and cold, and he can't quite light a fire his first night out in the woods. He manages to find a nice man, though, who teaches him that necessary skill. And from then on, Sam is set. He takes to his new life like he's been living it forever, instead of just reading about it in books.

Sam fishes and is successful. He finds many wild plants to eat. In fact, Sam makes it all look so easy! For a kid raised in NYC, it's a bit unbelievable. Since Sam is such a likeable character, I could forgive him for how easy he makes it all seem, foraging, trapping, fishing and even raising and training a falcon.

I won't go through the entire plot, but I'll share some fun bits, how's that? My comments in bold.

"I was hot and dirty. I scrambled down the rocks and slipped into the pool. It was so cold I yelled. But when I came out on the bank and put on my two pairs of trousers and three sweaters, which I thought was a better way to carry clothes than in a pack, I tingled and burned and felt coltish. I leapt up the bank, slipped, and my face went down in a patch of dogtooth violets.

"You would know them anywhere after a few looks at them at the Botanical Gardens and in colored flower books. They are little yellow lillies on long slender stems with oval leaves dappled with gray. But that's not all. They have wonderfully tasty bulbs. I was filling my pockets before I got up from my fall."


"At lunch I also solved the problem of carving out my tree (the one that he ends up living in). After a struggle I made a fire. Then I sewed a big skunk cabbage leaf into a cup wtih grass strands. I had read that you can boil water in a leaf, and ever since then I had been very anxious to see if this were true. It seems impossible, but it works. I boiled the eggs in a leaf. The water keeps the leaf wet, and although the top dries up and burns down to the water level, that's as afar as the burning goes. I was pleased to see it work."


"Once home, I immediately started to work again. I had a device I wanted to try, and put some hickory sticks in a tin can and set it to boiling while I fixed dinner. Before going to bed, I noted this on a piece of birch bark:

This night I am making salt. I know that people in the early days got along without it, but I think some of these wild foods would taste better with some flavoring. I understand that hickory sticks, boiled dry, leave a salty residue. I am trying it.

In the morning I added:

It is quite true. The can is dry, and thick with a black substance. It is very salty, and I tried it on frogs' legs for breakfast. It is just what I have needed."

(That's a neat trick to know!)

"The inner bark of the poplar tree tasted like wheat kernels, and so I dried as much as I could and powdered it into flour. It was tedious work, and in August when the acorns were ready, I found that they made better flour and were much easier to handle.

"I would bake the acorns in the fire, and grind them between stones. This was tedious work too, but now that I had a home and smoked venison and did not have to hunt food every minute, I could do things like make flour. I would simply add spring water to the flour and bake this on a piece of tin. When done, I had the best pancakes ever. They were flat and hard, like I imagined Indian breat to be. I liked them and would carry the leftovers in my pockets for lunch."

(Wonder if that baking in the fire got rid of the tannin in the acorns sufficiently? Another way I've read to rid the acorns of bitter tannin, is to put them in a lightly woven bag in a fast stream and let the water wash out the tannin. Or boil the acorns in as many changes of water as it takes.)

Sam is awfully clever. He trains his falcon, Frightful, to hunt for him. He also befriends a little raccoon:

"Jessie C. James became a devoted friend. He also became useful. He slept somewhere in the dark tops of the hemlocks all day long, unless he saw us start for the stream. Then, tree by tree, limb by limb, Jessie followed us. At the stream he was the most useful mussel digger that any boy could have. Jessie could find mussels where three men could not. He would start to eat them, and if he ate them, he got full and wouldn't dig anymore, so I took them away from him until he found me all I wanted. Then I let him have some.

"Mussels are good. Here are a few notes on how to fix them.

"Scrub mussels in spring water. Dump them into boiling water with salt. Boil five minutes. Remove and cool in the juice. Take out meat. Eat by dipping in acorn paste flavored with a smudge of garlic and green apples.

"Frightful took care of the small game supply, and now that she was an expert hunter, we had rabbit stew, pheasant pot pie, and an occasional sparrow, which I generously gave to Frightful. As fast as we removed the rabbits and pheasants new ones replaced them."

Sam's friend Bando (a lost English professor who Sam found and fed) and his Dad manage to come visit Sam in his big hemlock tree home for Christmas. Their Christmas dinner menu:
wild onion soup, turtle shells of sassafrass tea, blackened venison steaks, "fluffy mashed cattail tubers, mushrooms and dogtooth bulbs, smothered in gravy thickened with acorn powder. Each plate had a pile of soaked and stewed honey locust beans mixed with hickory nuts. It was a glorious feast."

My Side of the Mountain
is a charming book. You'll whiz through it in an afternoon. My library has a copy, then finally I found my own copy in a used book place. I made the mistake, however, of reading it now, before foraging season kicks in big time. And the book has made my mouth water with the mind-pictures of wild greens, onions, acorn flour, turtle soup..... It'd be best to wait to jump into this story, wait til March at least when the first young spring greens will be out. (That's for my area, anyway. Your seasons might be different.)

There's lots of good foraging-type info in the book, not so much for plant identification, but for the variety of plants and critters Sam finds to eat. There's good how to survive in the woods information as well. How to build a debris hut, finding spring water, that kind of thing.

Apparently, Jean George went on to write a few more of these books--you can find them at Amazon or just keep your eyes peeled for them. The next two are called On the Far Side of the Mountain, and Frightful's Mountain. I'd like to find those and read them too.

Check it out. You'll enjoy it!



HUP said...

My Side of the Mountain is one of my favorite books. I must have read it 2 or 3 times to my boys as they were growing up. Another good one was about a boy who gets stranded alone in the wilderness with only his hatchet by Gary Paulson. Yep, it's all about being able to fend for yourself.
Enjoy your blog!

Anonymous said...

_My Side of the Mountain_ was a good book, but that type of thing doesn't always turn out so well in real life.

A kid from north of Seattle tried something like that recently. He was gone for 12 days, and came through it without permanent damage, but it was a far cry from the boy's experience in the book.

"Wilderness runaway: N.J. too far, decides middle school might not be that bad

"His goal was to reach Tom Brown Jr.'s Tracker School in New Jersey. He'd read Brown's books on wilderness survival, nature observation and tracking. He knew the school didn't accept students under 18, but he reasoned that if he made it all the way from Washington state, Brown would take him in."

You can read the story at

Patricia said...

Thanks for stopping by, HUP. I enjoy your writing at the Wisconsin Preppers blog too.

Hey Anonymous: I have no doubt at all that "living off the land" is far more difficult than what is shown in My Side of the Mountain. The book idealizes foraging, making it seem a piece of cake. It is not, of course. But the story still gives you ideas for what might work. And it is a fun read.

Patricia said...

P.S. Thanks for that story in the Seattle Times!

sunni said...

I think I'll check into those books for my kids' library—and will bookmark that newspaper article for their consideration as well. Thanks to both of you!

Stephanie in AR said...

Hi, I nominated you for a blog award - click over to read about it.

Humble wife said...

Great review!

I love your blog and bookmarked so many tips that you have shared. Thanks for letting me see that like minded folks exist!

Baxter said...

I found your site while googling "gangrene garlic" and was delighted to find a review of My Side of the Mountain. I grew up in Woodstock, NY, and must have read that book half a dozen times. Fortunately, as one of your posters pointed out, I had sense enough to know that Sam's adventure was far more idyllic than practical. Thanks for the memory tickle and the note about her other books - can't wait to read them too!