Watch with mother

Zachary Leader

  • Eastern Sun, Winter Moon by Gary Paulsen
    Gollancz, 244 pp, £16.99, April 1996, ISBN 0 575 06319 X
  • The Attic: Memoir of a Chinese Landlord’s Son by Guanlong Cao, translated by Guanlong Cao and Nancy Moskin
    California, 256 pp, £19.95, April 1996, ISBN 0 520 20405 0

Being a boy is not always easy. These two childhood memoirs differ in important respects, but they agree about the problematic nature of boyhood pleasure. Gary Paulsen’s ‘Autobiographical Odyssey’ follows in the wake of his 1995 memoir, Winterdance, a much-praised account of dog-sled racing in Alaska. Though he is only now gaining a reputation in Britain, Paulsen has published over 150 books in the United States, many for children and ‘young adults’, specifically boys. His best-known boys’ books are a trilogy of survivalist novels about an urban adolescent, Brian Robeson, stranded in a Canadian wilderness: Hatchet, which sold over a million copies, Hatchet: The Return and Hatchet: Winter, which Paulsen claims to have written in response to fan mail (‘as many as two hundred letters a day’). The themes of these books – isolation, self-reliance, initiation – recur in his new memoir. So, too, do scenes of fantastic adventure and danger. The distinguishing feature of the new memoir – distinguishing it as a book for adults – is its depiction of sex, though this sex involves Paulsen’s mother, so perhaps the memoir, too, counts as a species of boys’ fiction.

The book begins in Chicago, towards the end of the Second World War. Paulsen is five. His father went off to war the year his son was born and has never seen him. Paulsen and his mother live alone, and when the mother goes to work an old woman called Clara does the child-minding. This woman ‘had hair out of her ears and nostrils and a big mole on her cheek and she did not read to me or cook for me or hold or cuddle me’. She drank, being the first of a line of alcoholics (which eventually includes both Paulsen’s parents and Paulsen himself) to figure in the story. The association of drink and danger is established early, when the boy is attacked by a drunken pederast, and his mother rescues him, knocking the drunk to the ground and then, Paulsen suspects, kicking him to death. ‘When at last his hands quit moving, and he lay still,’ Paulsen recalls, ‘she aimed careful kicks at his temples, aimed perfect, almost dainty kicks with the hard steel toe of her work shoes until he didn’t move.’

Paulsen’s mother is spectacularly good looking as well as ferocious. Separated from his father (a father who, she tells Paulsen, ‘has another ... friend ... in France’), she begins taking her son to bars in the evenings and receiving visits from men. The little boy misses nothing, like the super-observant Brian in the Hatchet trilogy: surreptitious kisses, his mother’s flushed face and rumpled dress, the ‘hard movements’ of drunken soldiers as they ‘pushed around me to get close to her’, ‘moaning sounds’ from the bedroom. One morning the boy walks in on his mother spreadeagled over a sofa, ‘Uncle’ Casey ‘pushing down into her ... looking at me and smiling and thrusting’.

There’s nothing Oprah-like about this aspect of the memoir. The child who records his mother’s sexual activities and allure is much more than a victim:

Harding was sitting on the bed and Mother was standing by the table. As I watched he stood and went to her and put his hand beneath her chin and held her mouth up and kissed her on the mouth and she moved toward him, into him, then stepped back and shook her head. I couldn’t hear what she said but I could see she didn’t want to say no, didn’t want to shake her head and Harding could see it too, could see it in the same way, and he moved to her and kissed her again.

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