Mentor Text Wednesday: 1944

Mentor Text: ‘1944’ excerpted from Gone to the Woods by Gary Paulsen


  • Memoir
  • Narrator’s Voice


Though I have read numerous reflections and reports on Gary Paulsen’s books, particularly the Hatchet series, I had yet to read any of his work until this spring.

My love of memoir and habitual checking of the recent digital additions to my library’s catalogue put his memoir, Gone to the Woods into my TBR pile.

Once I got around to reading it, I was blown away. I’ll touch on it later, but the way that the memoir is written, presenting almost a distance from the events of his life, is fascinating, and beautifully crafted makes it an amazingly engaging read.

And, as I am wont to do, I was making notes and capturing excerpts for mentor text purposes.

How we might use this text:

Memoir- The last few years, I’ve had great success in having students write brief pieces of memoir, using various mentor texts. Sometimes the mentor texts offer an idea we can mine, while others are a matter of craft.

Paulsen’s memoir does both of these things. The excerpt I’ve chosen to share with you is the opening passage of the book. It gives us an idea of the voice being used to deliver the recollections being recounted, whilst establishing the background of the “characters.” As those of us who read memoir well know, that first section of memoir can be awkward, as there needs to be a starting point, and often, it is the memoirist’s family that is the focus. It’s important to have a sense of them, as it influences who our writer is, but it can feel like a step away from the story we opened the book to read, and at an unfortunate point to step away.

There are other pieces that I’ve added to my files from this book that might more obviously be memoir mentor texts, but the things that are done with voice are the reason I’ve chosen this particular excerpt to share.

Narrator’s Voice –  Paulsen makes a really bold choice in this book, one that hooked me, as a reader, right off the hop. In memoir, we are so accustomed to the memoirist writing their story, from their point of view, as they saw it, using me, my and I.

Paulsen doesn’t do this. In fact, he steps “outside” of the story, and tells his own story as if he were an observer, albeit one who has the ability to see what “the boy,” as he refers to himself, is thinking. It makes this memoir feel somewhat more narrative, as if someone is spinning a yarn for us, as opposed to sharing memories.

Because the world loves to present things to us serendipitously, author Rob Hart tweeted the following whilst I was reading Paulsen’s book.

via Twitter

This idea of “submerging the I” fascinated me. There always seems to be a point in the reading of a memoir when you get kind of frustrated with someone telling their story, where them talking about themselves becomes annoying, or seems whiny. When Paulsen submerges his I, and is instead telling us about “the boy,” even though we’re aware that it is a creative device he’s using, it changes how we see the subject of the text. Though we might often throw around old aphorisms like “Everyone is the hero of their own story,” Paulsen’s use of this device makes this apparent without sounding self obsessed.

Not only would this be a wonderful mentor text for students writing about themselves in a memoir activity, but there is likely some potential for use in personal essays as well.

There is, I’ll admit, a certain weirdness I’m feeling as I wrap up a post where I’m recommending a book by a very widely read author for many middle and high school students, and their teachers. It feels kind of foolish to be sharing praise for Gary Paulsen’s work when I have no doubt that there are scores of you reading this post thinking, “C’mon Nickerson, we already knew this.” Even so, here I am, sharing an author many of you are familiar with, because there’s a chance that like me, you haven’t read him either.

Do you have any other mentor texts for “submerging the I”? What author(s) has “everyone read” that you haven’t gotten around to… yet?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!

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