In the introductory note to Paintings from the Cave, his collection of three novellas, distinguished author Gary Paulsen writes: “I was one of the kids who slipped through the cracks. I had what is euphemistically referred to as a troubled childhood.”
By “troubled childhood,” Paulsen is referring to growing up with parents who were drunk most of the time and who left him to raise himself at home. He was an outsider at school. He had nothing, he admits, and he was going nowhere. If it wasn’t for art and dogs, he says, he’d have been lost.
“First reading, then writing. First friend-pets, then sled dogs. They gave me hope that I wouldn’t always be stuck in the horror of my childhood, made me believe that there could be more to my life.”
Art and dogs—the life preservers that saved Paulsen—turn out to be the life preservers that save the kids without hope who inhabit the three novellas in this collection. The stories are based on the lives of Jake, Jo, and Jamie who, like Paulsen in his youth, have “nothing and no one to protect and raise them.”
The first story, “Man of the Iron Heads,” opens like this:
Sometimes you move right, sometimes left, in the dark, out of the light, always moving.
You stop moving, you’re done.
It’s the story of eleven- or twelve-year-old Jake (he lost track of birthdays long ago). J, as he is known in the inner city projects, knows that he has to keep moving or else he’ll find himself sliding into drugs and gang wars and the poverty that is all around him.
He inhabits a world of hopelessness and despair, with only the tiniest glimmers of love and kindness, and the reader wants to believe that somehow he’ll find a way out, an escape hatch, a way to survive, even if the odds are stacked against him.
Paulsen doesn’t sugar-coat this world or the problems that J has to confront. But in telling J’s story, Paulsen does offer a momentary respite to the unrelenting darkness of J’s life.
He offers J (and the reader) a glimpse into the apartment of a sculptor living only a few feet across the alley that separates the crime-ridden projects from the city’s sparkling new development.
And when the young sculptor invites J into his apartment, J finds relief in the art of shaping clay:
“Time stops. I don’t know how to say it another way. I stop thinking of when, only thinking of what. No more whens or ifs…”
“I don’t think of where I am when I’m working. Everything else goes away, this room, the neighborhood, the building on the other side of the block, Blade and Petey, I even forget Bill is there, listening, watching.”
This momentary relief from the hard edges of his life seeps into J’s consciousness and memory. It keeps him warm on cold nights, keeps hope alive on days when it seems he may never get out of the projects alive.
The other two stories are equally challenging, but in them Paulsen offers readers a bit more hope that the main characters can survive the difficult lives that they have to endure.
In "Jo-Jo the Dog-faced Girl," Jo finds in the dogs that she rescues the love that she never received from her drunken parents, and the dogs repay her kindness by saving her.
“Her true family was the dogs. Her only friends were the dogs.”
The dogs protect her from everything that hurts, writes Paulsen, and in the end it’s the dogs that teach her about compassion and the power of friendship.
In the third novella, "Erik’s Rules," Jamie and his older brother, Erik, are homeless and broke, and only a combination of the kindness of strangers, a growing interest in art and drawing, and a love of dogs rescue Jamie from despair.
“As I stroke her fur and murmur soft words, she gradually settles down, her legs stop thrashing and her breathing quiets. Her eyes close, and other than the frantic pounding of her heart, which I can feel through the side of her chest, I can tell she’s getting calm.
“I keep petting her and talking to her, nonsense about what a good dog she is and how pretty her coat is and what a beautiful line there is to her head and how much I want to draw her when she feels better.”
What you’ll find in these three stories is as realistic a portrait of childhood, dogs, and the making of art as you’ll find anywhere.
Paulsen refuses to hold anything back but, rather, shares the kind of details that inspire admiration for his craftsmanship as a storyteller and for the unflinching honesty that he uses to tell these stories.
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