Paulsen, Gary. 1991. The
cookcamp. New York: Orchard Books. ISBN:
Prolific writer Gary Paulsen has triumphed again with this book that
focuses on a summer that was a turning point in the life of a young
boy. Never named in the text, the boy is sent to live with his
grandma in the summer of 1944 while his father is away at war and his
mother copes with the turmoil in her life. His grandma is the
cook for a group of men that are building a road to Canada that will
serve as an evacuation route should the Germans invade (p.19), and the
boy spends the summer getting to know his grandma and bonding with the
men, but missing his mother all the while.
This short book is just a snapshot of a summer in the life of a young
boy, but Paulsen is able to pack it full of vivid descriptions that
allow the reader to visualize the wooded setting.
Details such as the boy's thoughts as he watches his grandma in the
yellow light of an oil lamp (p.22) and his excitement as he rides the
Caterpillar tractor for the first time allow the reader to step back in
time into this young man's world ("The boy almost fainted.
They were high, so high he could see all around. He saw the cook
trailer where his grandmother was working and the trees that went on
and on forever, and out in front of the pile, below and to the right,
were all the dump trucks in a line." (pp.61-62)).
Paulsen's descriptive writing paints a beautiful background, but the
heart of this story is one young man's first taste of independence as
he spends a summer away from his mother. Even though he mentions
that he misses her throughout the story, the boy is able to make the
journey on the train alone, and once there is able to forge
relationships and experience all that the Cookcamp has to offer.
Another central theme is the special bond that the boy feels with his
grandma after this once-in-a-lifetime chance to spend the summer with
her. He seems to sense the significance of this as he feels "a
moment of sadness, some cutting thing" (p.110) as his mother picks him
up at the train station at the end of the summer. A "portrait"
that gives background information about the boy's grandma brings the
book full circle as the now-grown boy brings his own son to meet his