Gary Paulsen’s 2003 memoir, How Angel Peterson Got His Name,
recounts the feats of derring-do Paulsen and his friends amused themselves with while growing up in northern Minnesota during the 1950s. From flying over a farm on a kite-string to wrestling with a bear, these recollections read like larger-than-life, tall tales. Paulsen dedicates the book to “all boys in their thirteenth year,” with the wry observation, “the miracle is that we live through it.” Indeed, as the wild antics unfold, it becomes increasingly miraculous that, somehow, Paulsen lived to tell his stories.
In the forward that opens his book, Paulsen recalls “two important incidents” that make the wild ride through his thirteenth year seem inevitable. The first is his attempt, at age twelve, to go over his local 12-foot waterfall in a barrel. It’s an ill-fated venture, and, without the intervention of a fate that “protects idiots,” he would have drowned. The second incident occurred years later. His own son, age thirteen, waddled into the room, and Paulsen instantly identified his gate as that of a boy who has peed on an electric fence. When his son asked, “Will I ever stop doing things like this?”, Paulsen shook his head and explained, “It’s the way we are.”
Chapter 1 details how “Angel Peterson got his name” at age thirteen. Gary Paulsen, Carl “Angel” Peterson, Wayne Halverson, and Alan Grenville are friends in a small Minnesota town during the pre-television age. (Television exists elsewhere but hasn’t yet arrived in rural Minnesota.) Every Sunday evening, they gather at the Texaco station to listen to Gunsmoke
on the radio. Sixteen-year-old Archie Swenson works at the Texaco, having dropped out of school. With his ducktail haircut and his sleeve folding over a cigarette pack, Archie is “very, very cool.” The younger boys worship him. Moreover, he has a car.
In January 1954, the boys leave a matinee screening of Them!
, marveling at the movie’s giant, flesh-eating ants. Carl Peterson is silent, pondering the newsreel that preceded the movie. It featured a man who went 74 miles an hour on skis, thus setting the world record for speed on skis. Carl is convinced he can beat that record with help from Archie’s car.
The boys visit the army surplus store, which is chock-full of remnants from WWII. Pooling their hard-earned dollars, they outfit Carl with goggles, helmet, flight jacket and pants, and mittens. They bribe Archie to tow ski-clad Carl behind his car at 75 miles an hour.
Saturday morning, they all drive out to a long, flat stretch of road, bordered by a frozen drainage ditch. According to the plan, Carl, skiing on the ditch, will turn his thumb up to signal he’s ready for more speed, or down if he needs to go slower. Carl is hitched to the bumper with a long rope; the other boys pile into the car, and they take off. When Carl’s thumb goes up and stays there, Archie accelerates to 80 miles an hour. Then Carl hits a patch of gravel and flies out of his skis. He plunges into deep snow, still roped to the car, which pulls him along like a gopher tunneling under the surface.
When they stop the car and recover Carl, they discover the rope twisted around the mitten’s thumb, holding it up. Carl is remarkably intact and says that during his harrowing experience, he heard the angels singing “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” Thus his new name, “Angel.”
The high-flying adventure of Paulsen’s friend Emil begins with his visit to the popular army surplus store. Emil is penny-pinching, but when he sees an enormous, silk target kite for sale, he’s willing to part with eleven dollars to have it. The kite, designed to be a practice target for fighter pilots-in-training, has an aluminum frame and spans a whopping eight-by-ten feet.
Emil recruits Paulsen and the other boys to help him fly the kite. Back at the drainage ditch, with a fierce wind blowing, they thread parachute rope through a handle fashioned from a hockey stick and then tie it to the kite. Emil grasps the handle while the other boys walk the kite into the wind. They release it, and both Emil and the kite become airborne. After flying for more than a mile, above trees and a barn, Emil finally lets go and falls into a pig pen. When Alan asks why he held on so long, Emil says the kite cost eleven dollars and grumbles, “A man hates to let go of that much money.”
Paulsen notes that another friend, Orvis Orvisen, has an unfortunate name that spells trouble for him. He does, indeed, attract the attention of bullies at his Catholic school, but soon develops “a novel method of self-defense.” Having learned what mistreatment to expect, he simply inflicts it upon himself, thereby beating the bullies to the punch.
When August arrives, occasioning weekly revival meetings under a tent, Orvis and Paulsen plot to prank the worshippers. Just as the minister shouts, “Listen for the footsteps of God!”, the boys pitter-patter crab apples on the tent roof. The minister’s henchmen catch them, and Orvis impulsively replies “Archie Swenson” when they ask his name. Realizing Archie will seek revenge, Orvis goes to the Texaco Station and impales himself on a brick wall to spare Archie the trouble.
Following several anecdotes about bicycle stunt riding (inspired by barrel-leaping, motorcycle daredevils), Paulsen tells about the “Circle of Death.” At age thirteen, Paulsen is terrified of girls and cannot speak to them, but Orvis is even more fearful of them. He desperately wants their attention, however, which drives him to perform outrageous stunts in their presence.
Along comes the county fair, where a man with a chained bear pledges $25 to anyone who can remain in the ring with the beast for one minute. Mindful of girls watching, Orvis enters the “circle of death.” He wrestles his way past one minute but is too battered to enjoy his victory.
In the final chapter, the boys pursue more ill-advised activities by jerry-rigging skateboards and hitching rides from car bumpers, unbeknownst to drivers. Paulsen’s cousin Harris (from Harris and Me
) cobbles together tractor inner-tubes to bungee-jump off the hayloft. His dive into a wasps’ nest ends the book, but, luckily, not Harris himself.Kirkus Reviews
praises Paulsen’s book as a celebration of “that innate impulse to try really stupid stunts
, just to see what happens.” Although what happens is life-threatening, it makes for hilarious reading.