Review: My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George


Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date Read: April 17 to 21, 2015
Read Count: 2
Recommended by: found during a bout of spring cleaning
Recommended for: people who like nature

Everything was white, clean, shining, and beautiful. The sky was blue, blue, blue. The hemlock grove was laced with snow, the meadow was smooth and white, and the gorge was sparkling with ice. It was so beautiful and peaceful that I laughed out loud. I guess I laughed because my first snowstorm was over and it had not been so terrible after all.

My Side of the Mountain, written by Jean Craighead George in 1959, is a survivalist story about a boy who runs away from home to live in the Catskill Mountains, and he not only survives but thrives in the wilderness. Twelve-year-old Sam Gribley comes from a large family, and all the Gribleys are crammed together in a small apartment in New York. Sam couldn’t stand living in such a confined space with his parents and all his siblings anymore, so he takes off for his grandfather’s farm in the Catskills. The story begins with Sam already in the mountains preparing his humble tree abode for the first snowstorm. He discusses in detail some of the challenges he’s faced so far and his fear of the storm and not knowing what will happen after. Then gradually, he talks about his life in New York, his family, and how he came to the Catskills.

Sam lives off the land and learns how to be self-sufficient, while skirting the attention of the townsfolk living on the foot of the mountains. It seems everyone he meets is worried about him, everyone but his immediate family, that is. He details his successes and failures and ways in which he learns from both. One of his major achievements is building his house in a tree and another is training a falcon that he names Frightful. The passages where he and Frightful are together are some of the best moments in the book.

It’s not hard to see why this book won so many literary awards and has been a staple on reading lists for children ever since it was published. The writing is clear and descriptive, the adventures are fun and fascinating, Sam is a likable character who adapts easily to the wilderness, and various supporting animal characters are hilarious. They add much needed comedic relief to Sam’s narration.

As much as I still like this book, there are quite a few things I didn’t notice before that bother me now, like

  • Sam’s age
  • the fact that his family didn’t come looking for him (until later)
  • they also didn’t call the police
  • Sam’s extensive knowledge of the wilderness (for a city kid, he’s very well versed in survival skills)
  • the fact that he didn’t take any books with him
  • all the strangers he ran into were kind and helpful

Though none of these things occurred to me when I first read the book. Then again, I was only 9 at the time, so 12 seemed almost grown-up.

Everything came together too easily for Sam. Even some of his biggest challenges were resolved by nightfall. Food was plentiful and easily prepared, supplies were readily available, the weather was mostly fair and mild, shelter was easy to find, storage was easy to built, and no wildlife posed a threat to Sam’s livelihood. No wonder he had such a great time frolicking in the wild. But despite it all, I still love this story and these adventures to this day.


I was worried this book wouldn’t live up to my glorious memories of it, and that’s why I haven’t reread it. But after finishing Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, I was in the mood for more survivalist tales. Should have gone with Jon Krakauer instead, someone I’ve been meaning to read for ages now, but I was also in the mood for something easy, upbeat, and fictional. So Krakauer was shelved once again.

My Side of the Mountain was and still is a very special book to me. It introduced me to the beauty of the natural world and made me appreciate nature and wildlife. As a city kid growing up in an industrial working-class community, all I knew was gravel and concrete and the occasional dandelions that grew in between the cracks. I had only seen the Catskills in pictures, but Jean Craighead George’s sweeping descriptions breathed life into those mountains. The sky and trees and streams and even the grass came to life right before my eyes, and everything about the wilderness was just so beautiful, so full of color and life. I hadn’t known it was possible to live off the land and be self-sufficient that far away from the cities; the whole idea was kind of mind-blowing. That was when I started reading more wilderness and survival stories, along with guides and documentaries, and learning all I could so that one day I could have an adventure similar to Sam’s. I haven’t been to the Catskills yet, but I do go camping and canoeing every year in the boundary waters and that’s almost just as good.

It wasn’t until years later that I took an active role in conservation and environmental issues, but it was this book that started it all for me. It made me appreciate the beauty of the wilderness even though I’d hadn’t yet seen it for myself at that point.