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Former Bemidji State student and bestselling author Gary Paulsen dies at 82

Gary Paulsen, who was born in Minneapolis and attended Bemidji State, was 82 when he died Wednesday, Oct. 13..

Gary Paulsen.jpg
Young-adult author and Minneapolis native Gary Paulsen died Oct. 13, 2021. He was 82. The three-time Newbery Honor winner’s titles include “Dogsong,” “Woodsong,” “The Voyage of the Frog” and “Masters of Disaster.” Paulsen fled a difficult home life at age 14 and ran away with the circus, according to his publisher, Random House. Perhaps his biggest message to his fans is “Read like a wolf eats.” Contributed via St. Paul Pioneer Press

Book lovers attending Saturday’s Twin Cities Book Festival at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds will see a tribute to popular and bestselling author Gary Paulsen at the Red Balloon Bookshop booth where Paulsen’s classic “Hatchet” and his other young adult books will be displayed.

Paulsen, who was born in Minneapolis and attended Bemidji State, was 82 when he died Wednesday. Those in the local book community knew something was wrong when his Oct. 9 virtual Book Festival appearance was canceled. He was to have read from his newest book, “How to Train Your Dad.” His memoir for middle-grade readers, “Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Lost Childhood,” was published in January. It told of how the author coped with his parents’ alcoholism by going to the woods and the library.

Paulsen was one of the most honored writers of contemporary literature for young people, praised for his clear prose and exciting tales of adventure such as “Hatchet,” a 1986 novel about a boy who survives a plane crash and learns to survive challenges of nature. It has sold more than 4.5 million copies.

Author of more than 200 books for adults and young people, Paulsen won the American Library Association’s prestigious Newbery Honors for “Dogsong,” “Hatchet” and “The Winter Room.” In 1997 he won the ALA’s Margaret Edwards Award for a body of work that made a “significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature.”

It’s safe to say that there would not have been “Hatchet” and Paulsen’s other young adult books if he had not lived in northern Minnesota. That was obvious during a 1996 interview he did with the Pioneer Press from his ranch in New Mexico when “Brian’s Winter,” a sequel to “Hatchet,” was published.

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For “Brian’s Winter,” he drew on his own wilderness experiences in Minnesota and Canada to describe how 13-year-old Brian copes with a savage winter after surviving a plane crash by sewing a tunic from rabbit fur and fashioning a flint-tipped spear to protect himself.

“Oh, I’ve seen a lot of winter,” said Paulsen, who ran 15 sled dogs when he lived in Becida, south of Bemidji. “Like Brian, I’ve hunted with a bow, been attacked by moose, dealt with cold so severe the trees exploded. Because I write about real things, people sense truth in my work. I just tell the story. I don’t try to put in hidden meanings or crank it up with messages. … A lot of young-adult books talk down to kids. I go to schools and meet with kids. I’ve found they’re smarter than lots of adults, and they’re honest.”

Paulsen’s own childhood was hard, he admitted. His parents were alcoholics so he spent much of the time living with his uncles in northern Minnesota where he joked “everybody north of Bemidji is related to me.”

After barely graduating from Thief River Falls high school, he attended BSC, served in the Army, worked for a men’s magazine in California (a job he got by concocting a false resume), and finally returned to Minnesota to “hole up in a cabin” and write his first published book, “Some Birds Don’t Fly.” But alcohol took precedence overwriting, and he spent much of the early 1970s drunk in New Mexico.

When he found sobriety in the 1970s he was broke, so he moved back to northern Minnesota with his wife, artist Ruth Wright Paulsen, and their son Jim. They lived in an unheated former bus garage with no plumbing and a door so loose snow drifted in.

Using an old sled and four borrowed dogs, Paulsen began running a 20-mile trap line. “I’d be out on seven-day runs, sleeping on the sled,” he recalled in a 1992 interview. “I became less and less enamored of trapping and killing. My dogs had lives, and so did the animals I trapped. I quit, but I told everybody I was still trapping.”

Paulsen and his dogs twice ran the grueling, 1,100-mile Iditarod race across Alaska. During the second race, he and his team were caught on the Bering Sea in winds so strong the dogs were blown right into the air. A plane had to lift them off the ice, and they didn’t finish the course.

After a severe heart attack in 1989, Paulsen sold the beloved sled dogs he’d worked with for 11 years, and he and Ruth moved to New Mexico, where he hoped to live as simply as possible.

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