Gone to the Woods

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
Gone to the Woods Book Poster Image
Author's harrowing memoir shows how kindness saved him.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Gone to the Woods includes lots of vivid, first-person experience of history and the suffering inflicted on vulnerable people by its assorted brutalities: wartime massacres and other atrocities in the Philippines, and routine hardship and vistas of horrifically wounded soldiers on trains. Thanks to the kindness of a librarian, a world opens up to a battered, deprived kid. There's also detailed, knowledgeable descriptions of nature, and a lot of fishing and hunting lore, and farm work in the mid 20th century.

Positive Messages

Strong messages of survival, determination, hard work, and self-respect. Sometimes a kind deed can have a life-changing impact. Experiencing a loving family, however briefly, can make you unwilling to settle for abuse.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Gary's parents, whom he calls "the vipers," are abusive drunks, who attack and even try to kill him (which doesn't keep him from getting sent back to them when he runs away). Before his parents reunite for a lifetime of fighting and falling down drunk, his mother uses charm, good looks, and by implication sex, to get what she wants, as when she gets a ship's captain to flout quarantine and take chickenpox-covered Gary aboard. To survive in later years, "the boy" does things like stealing food and the change from the pockets of drunks in bars, but, thanks in large part to the life-changing impact of the rare decent adult in his life, as well as his profound bond with nature, he finds the strength and determination to take command of his life and make it what it should be. A social misfit who does badly at school, he discovers the empowering effects of reading and writing, and plunges into both, thanks to a kind librarian who treats his 13-year-old self with respect. Of his grandmother, who directly and indirectly saves his life on a few occasions, he says, "Her way of thinking taught [the boy], early on, to deal with problems in a really simple, practical way: If it doesn't work Here, go over There." Perhaps most important, his Aunt Edy and Uncle Sig, who make a loving family with him on their farm until his mother snatches him away, and who give him a strong sense of how it should be. "Sig was there in that place, in that time because he was supposed to be there, kneeling in a canoe moving through this endless beauty, just as he had been at the table drinking coffee and smiling with Edy. And, by association with him, the boy was included. He was no longer the wiseacre kid singing in bars in Chicago chomping fried chicken and guzzling Coca-Cola, watching stupidly drunk men try to get close to his mpther. He was here, part of this, a living part of what Sig was, by being in this place, being part of the beauty, part of the flow. Part of the joy."


First seen at age 5, young Gary experiences many horrors, including a train packed with grotesquely wounded soldiers, a plane crash at sea whose survivors are attacked and killed by sharks before their rescuers can reach them, and his drunken mother trying to kill him with a knife. In the Philippines, he sees a bloodstained wall where, during the war, women and children were killed with flamethrowers, and watches as locals who try to get over the barbed wire fence of a military base to steal food are machine-gunned to death. He suffers routine beatings by local bullies until he causes them enough pain to make them stop --taking a lesson from his uncle, who helped him deal with an attacking flock of geese. He admires a beautiful deer in the woods and is angry when he finds her dead from a careless shot by a drunken hunter. An avid hunter and fisherman himself, he does a lot of violence to animals, including much ripping out of guts and  eating the eyes of fish. His drunken parents have violent physical fights and either neglect or abuse him, which doesn't keep him from getting sent back to them when he runs away and tries to make a life for himself. One of the jobs he takes to survive is setting pins in a bowling alley whose drunk patrons make a sport of trying to hit the pin setters and are often successful. In the Army, he describes learning to kill people efficiently in large numbers. As a 5-year-old, he's attacked by a flock of geese. When his mother and the latest of his "uncles" come to take him away from the farm where he's safe and happy, his (real) Uncle Sig starts to defend him by force but is held back by his wife.


There's no explicit sex, but sleaze is nearly constant with Gary's parents and some other adults. Five-year-old Gary is used as a pawn to attract men by his drunken mother and hides out under the kitchen table when she carries on with them. His early childhood involves a steady parade of "uncles" who aren't related to him. Apparently his absent, deployed father is doing much the same, because when his parents are reunited all they do is get drunk and scream at each other about infidelity. Later, Gary joins a carnival, where the conflict between the owner and his straying, much-gawked-at wife leads to violence and the end of the job. In the Army, he's informed that getting crabs or venereal disease will get him charged with "destruction of government property."


Crude anatomical details of Army physical. Frequent "piss." Occasional "bastards," "bugger," "crap," "balls,"  "sucks." "Poop" (chicken, pig, and otherwise) is a regular feature of farm life, as is getting yourself covered with it. 


Coca-Cola and other brands of the day are mentioned for scene-setting.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Alcohol is everywhere, and drunks are a constant: the parents who drink themselves into a stupor after screaming at each other and attacking their kid, the drunks at the bar from whom he steals loose change, the drunks at the bowling alleys who try to hit the kids setting the pins, often injuring them badly. Five-year-old Gary helps a train porter who's bringing "good juice" to wounded soldiers. An old man chews tobacco and spits a lot; adults smoke cigarettes.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Lost Childhood is a harsh, harrowing memoir by bestselling author and three-time Newbery Honor recipient  Gary Paulsen, known for his intense survival novel Hatchet. He punctuates the vivid horrors of his early life with powerful descriptions of the things that saved him -- the beauty of nature, the brief experience of being in a loving family, a post-World War II America still wild and free enough that a 12-year-old could flee his drunken, abusive parents and make a life for himself, however fleetingly, doing farm work on the Great Plains. He describes how worlds opened up for him through reading and writing after a librarian treated an outcast kid with respect. In a series of third-person vignettes that take "the boy" from the age of 5 to his enlistment in the Army, there's physical and emotional violence aplenty, from wartime atrocities and badly wounded soldiers and plane-crash survivors attacked by sharks to young Gary's parents trying to kill him. Crude language (including "piss," "bastards," "bugger," "crap," "balls") and situations, from bathroom crises to Army physicals, are common. Much of the story involves hunting, fishing, and wilderness survival, with matter-of-fact but gory detail. Ultimately, it's an inspirational tale of determination, self-respect, and transformational kindness, but the narrative road goes through horrific, and real, territory. The publisher recommends Gone to the Woods for kids age 8 to 12. But given the amount of child abuse, alcoholism, his parents' violent physical fights, and the implication that his mother used Gary to attract men in bars for sex, we think this is better suited for teens 13 and up. 

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What's the story?

GONE TO THE WOODS opens as "the boy," 5 years old, is taken to Chicago in wartime by his mother, whose factory job gives her lots of money to spend on partying and drinking with strange men and using her cute son as bait. (His father, an Army officer, is overseas, and the boy meets him for the first time some years later.) His grandmother steps in and puts the boy on a solo train ride to Minnesota, where he's taken in by his aunt and uncle on their farm. It's the first time he's been treated with love and respect, and it doesn't last, as his mom returns with one of his temporary "uncles" to take him away. But in this short time he gains self-respect, learns about hard work, how to scare bullies into leaving him alone, and what it feels like to have people who love you -- and discovers a profound bond with nature. The horrific years to come until he makes his escape by enlisting in the Army include much abuse from his violent, drunken parents, as well stealing from drunks in bars for food money. But he also experiences the triumph of surviving in the woods by his own skills, and has brief interludes of freedom where he proves his worth in the outside world. The kindness of a librarian opens worlds of reading and writing that ultimately lead to his salvation and also his lifelong career as a successful author.

Is it any good?

Gary Paulsen's most harrowing survival tale turns out to be his own, where brief interludes of kindness and love of nature get him through years as of abuse by his drunken, violent parents. Some parts of Gone to the Woods -- told in a series of third-person vignettes -- are stronger than others, but both the horrors and the moments of strength and revelatory beauty are told so compellingly that you are furiously rooting for this kid to get out and get to a good place, even when you know he did.

 "Sure not safe at home. Never safe. Parents didn't know he was gone anyway and when they at last thought to punish him for running, for being a runaway -- no, Runaway -- he was already in the woods. Father said he was no good. Swore at him. Called him worthless. This from a man got so drunk he pissed his pants and didn't know it. Walked back from the liquor store with a bottle in a paper sack and wet legs and didn't even know it. ... But called the boy a worthless kid...Worthless kid who never pissed his pants and was smart enough to slip away before they knew he was gone and head for the woods."

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the instinct for survival in Gone to the Woods. Why are stories of abused kids who survive so popular? Do you know any kids (or former kids) who overcame traumatic events in their early life and found positive, loving ways to live? What helped them? 

  • Young Gary had the world opened up to him by a librarian. Has a librarian ever handed  you a book that changed your life, expanded your world view, or led you to become a fan of a certain author? What was the book?

  • Have you read any of Gary Paulsen's novels? Does knowing what he went through as a kid make you see them any differently?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love World War II stories and coming-of-age tales

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