In an unnamed time when countless salmon, whales, dolphins, eagles, ravens, and bears swam, flew, or wandered uninhibited, a young teen called Leif begins sailing north in mythical oceanic seas resembling the west coast of California. In a small canoe with nothing but rudimentary supplies, Leif reluctantly begins navigating the journey of his life.
Parentless from birth, Leif’s life as a boy was to work in servitude on sailing vessels. One man, Old Carl, is kind to him. When cholera begins killing the sailors, Old Carl quickly arms Leif with meager supplies and the canoe, and instructs him to go north, never to return.
So begins Gary Paulsen’s book about an individual coming of age during a time of crisis who undergoes tests of endurance. As with many of Paulsen’s books, surviving against monumental odds is the theme of “Northwind.”
Leif witnesses miracles of the wilderness: bears feeding on salmon that have been pushed by waves into canyon inlets; killer whales stalking his boat; dolphins in frenzy around his canoe; ravens camping in the canoe to steal his fish; blue icebergs hovering like tall buildings.
It is a testament to Paulsen’s writing that poetic accounts of seas, bays, and coasts make up the bulk of this short, riveting novel. We are privy to Leif’s thoughts which reveal him to be a young man of great compassionate instinct.
Noting how the sea creatures navigate relentless waves, Leif learns how to guide his boat. An encounter with bears teaches him to remain acutely aware of his surroundings. Accepting that his fate is often at the hands of wild sea animals, he notes that life is really just a journey of learning.
Were I asked to choose today, I would describe this book of only 245 pages as one of the most beautiful I have read in years. It is sad that this was Paulsen’s last book before he died in November, 2021, at age 82, but it is fitting that it is a work of art. It is an appropriate book for any age able to grasp the ideas of survivorship and endurance.
Paulsen wrote more than 200 books and won numerous awards. Many of his books reflect his own adventures including his experiences participating in the Iditarod and, of course, sailing.