43 pages 1 hour read

Gary Paulsen


Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2022

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Summary and Study Guide


Northwind is the final novel by author Gary Paulsen, who died in late 2021. It serves as a fitting bookend to Paulsen’s canon, featuring the author’s signature approach to coming-of-age stories. Namely, the novel chronicles the journey of a young boy on a quest for identity in a hostile wilderness that tests his ability to survive. In a Norse village in Scandinavia, orphan Leif ekes out a hardscrabble existence as an enslaved person on seal-hunting ships. After his ship maroons him and others in a remote fish camp and an outbreak of disease leaves Leif the sole survivor, he must learn to survive by wit and instinct while also respecting the indifferent and often violent power of nature. Paulsen wrote over 200 books in his lifetime in addition to many articles, short stories, and plays. Paulsen’s most famous work is Hatchet, which became the Brian’s Saga series. Hatchet, The Winter Room, and Dogsong are all Newberry Honor books. In 1997, the ALA gave Paulsen the Margaret A. Edwards Award for his contribution to young adult literature.

This guide is based on the 2022 Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers e-book edition.

Content Warning: The source material features depictions of child abuse, child death, and mention of suicidal thoughts.

Plot Summary

Born with the foreboding sign of a blood clot in his hand, Leif is destined for tragedy. Orphaned and alone, Leif lives in Scandinavia near the docks, surviving on the kindness of strangers. With no family to protect him, Leif is sold into enslavement on seal-hunting boats, where he is abused and given the most menial and loathsome jobs. His misery is so great that at one point he considers jumping overboard; in this moment, he is saved by the encouraging words of Old Carl, an older man who also works on the ships and becomes a father figure to Leif. When Leif is 12 years old, the ship arrives at a remote salmon fishing camp. The crew leaves him, Old Carl, another orphan called Little Carl, and all the other old men behind, instructing them to smoke fish for selling. The harsh climate is punishing, but Leif is happy to be away from the terrors of sailing life, and he enjoys learning from Old Carl.

Eventually, the fish camp inhabitants realize their ship has abandoned them. To escape the worsening weather, they resolve to build a canoe. Before they can escape, however, a ghost-like ship full of filthy, emaciated sailors arrives at their camp; Old Carl perceives this new arrival to be a bad omen. The fish camp men can’t communicate with the wraith-like sailors, who soon after leave on their ship. A few days later, the men in the fish camp fall ill with cholera and begin dying. Old Carl packs the canoe and sends Leif away along with Little Carl. Sick and dying, he only tells Leif to go “north” to escape the sickness. Leif paddles away from the only family he’s ever had into the unfamiliar land.

Little Carl becomes ill, and soon Leif follows. Losing all control of their bodily functions, Leif and the small boy float aimlessly for days in the canoe, submerged in their waste. Leif awakens from his fevered sleep to find an orca whale pushing his canoe toward shore away from her playful calves. Little Carl is dead, and Leif barely has the strength to stand. After dragging himself to the water to wash, Leif tenderly lifts Little Carl’s body from the canoe, cleans it, and swaddles it in a blanket. Leif cleans the canoe and paddles onward to a remote island that appears to be free of predators and builds a tomb. After burying the body and creating a cairn, Leif composes a song in memorial but is so grief-stricken that he can’t sing the words.

After regaining his strength, Leif continues his push north. He fashions a fishing spear and uses Old Carl’s smoking technique to create food stores. After spotting a bear nearby, Leif takes to cooking his food on small islands away from shore and only goes on land to forage for berries. The farther Leif travels, the more he learns about his environment and how to survive and flourish while living outside in the wild. As Leif considers his experiences, he resolves to commemorate them with more than just a song. Using wood carvings, he begins chronicling his adventures. This telling of his story makes him long for more information about his family, yet despite dreaming of his mother often, he never sees her face. Making the storyboard comforts Leif, as it captures memories of Old Carl and Little Carl that sustain him and provides reminders of all he has survived.

As Leif’s body grows stronger, so does his mind, and he comes to understand that his purpose in life is to learn from his environment. He learns by watching the whales feed, interpreting signs of bear activity, monitoring changes in the water currents, and witnessing surfing dolphins. Leif stores up these experiences in his mind and applies them to his life, resolving to be a lifelong observer and learner. As he continues the work on his storyboard, he adds details of his life from before his journey began. The farther north he goes, the harsher the landscape becomes and the more difficult the water is to ford. Leif must call upon all his senses and new skills to make wise decisions and remain safe. After witnessing another whale feeding frenzy and finding a giant blue wall of ice, Leif reaches the ocean. A paddle with strange markings drifts past, indicating a ship is nearby. But Leif has no desire to return to life aboard a ship. Instead, he turns south, determined to carve out a life of his own living in harmony with nature.

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