Kristen O'Toole

Dear Ms. George,

I am writing to you to complete Assignment #28 in my 6th grade Language Arts textbook: Write a Letter to Your Favorite Author. I guess I already messed up, since the book says that the first sentence in every good letter is ďHow are you?Ē I also sort of lied, since youíre not my favorite author. No offense. I just donít like books. My brother loves your book My Side of the Mountain though.

How are you? I am fine. I am writing to you about the portrayal of the woods in your book My Side of the Mountain. I guess you probably get a lot of letters from kids that youíve never met. I doubt that famous authors really write back to kids. My friend Mandy Bonaventure is writing to J.K. Rowling to ask why thereís no real wicca in the Harry Potter books. As if J.K. Rowling even reads her fan mail. If you do write back, my brother will be super excited. If he were writing this letter his main question would be: did you actually do all the things Sam does in the book? I think he knows that fiction means made up, but he would like to know if you really made a lamp out of deer fat and a turtle shell or whatever to be sure it was realistic before you wrote about it. Because if you did, then that means it will work for him if he ever has to live off the land.

Pete, thatís my brother, by the way, is pretty much obsessed with living off the land. He isnít trying to get out of an apartment with 14 people or anything like your Sam. Most of the time itís just him and me. Unfortunately for Pete, there isnít much land around here to live off. The woods here are in small patches between developments and are filled with rusty metal things. Whenever a kid in the neighborhood gets a cut all the parents come out to the yards and start yelling about how weíll get tetanus from playing in the woods and some one gets whisked to the doctor for a big old shot. Itís like they can smell the blood from inside the houses. Thereís a stream nearby too but there arenít any trout in it and our mom told Pete that if she ever caught him putting anything from that stream near his mouth, including the water, sheíd lock him in his room. There definitely arenít any trees around here with trunks big enough to carve into a house. That always kind of bugged me. Sam seems like heís so into the land and its resources, but he probably killed that tree when he chopped a cave big enough to live inside in it, right? I am not sure if the portrayal of the woods in your book My Side of the Mountain is very realistic.

I am pretty much a fanatic about saving the earth. I am the most active member of the Brookfield Middle School Earth Savers. I started caring about the environment last summer when Mandy stopped talking to me after what happened in Monkey Island. That is the name for our main patch of woods. It connects my subdivision and Mandyís subdivision and a big empty field where a mall was supposed to be built. Mandy and I would meet by the dead tree in the center of Monkey Island and walk across the field of yellow grass. From the hill on the far side, you can see planes landing and taking off at the airport in Barton. Once we found a fire pit, still smoking, probably from teenagers the night before. There are always tire tracks in the yellow grass, figure eights and doughnuts. Mandy says her sister sneaks out to meet other high school kids sometimes. We kicked dirt on the fire to put it out, because I know itís dangerous to leave a fire burning in the woods. Monkey Island is good for hiding and for shortcuts. If the character of Sam were camping there, he could eat thrown-out Big Macs instead of venison he smoked himself.

This one day we were supposed to meet at the tree to play Gypsies, which is Mandyís favorite game. It basically consists of dressing up, pretending to read tarot cards, and running through the woods from imaginary townspeople who want to burn us at the stake. (Something about Mandy: she said the ďTĒ at the end of tarot for about two months after she got the cards.) Anyway, Mandy was late, or I thought she was. I was at the tree waiting when this older boy rode up on his dirt bike and asked me what are you supposed to be? A gypsy but even as I said it I felt like I was probably too old for costumes. He asked if I knew what a gypsy was and I said it was like a fortune teller, and he said kind of. He wheeled his bike up slowly until the gears dug into my leg and I was pinned against the tree. He smiled, but not in a nice way, and said look into your crystal ball and tell me if anyone is coming. Then he held me on the ground for a while, so I had plenty of time to notice the beer cans, bike wheels, and parts of cars that I had never seen before.

Mandy didnít show up until the boy was riding away on his bike, snapping twigs and spitting Skoal all over the place. Hey, Danny! She yelled after him. He rode off across the field and Mandy looked at me. Were you just talking to my sisterís friend Danny? And I said sort of and Mandy said does he have a crush on you? And I said I didnít think so, and I donít, since after he let me up he told me to get away from him, and also not to tell anyone or heíd kill Pete. Anyway I definitely donít have a crush on him I said. Mandy started to run back to her house and I followed her. She said you are totally lying and I hate you because friends arenít supposed to get crushes on the same boys, itís like a rule, my sister told me. Then she called me the b-word at the top of her lungs just as all the parents started coming out of their houses yelling about tetanus because my cheek was bleeding. Mrs. Bonaventure told Mandy she needed to stay inside when she played dress-up and sent her to her room for saying a swear and then she took me to the doctor to get the shot. When I got home, Mom was microwaving pizza in her bathrobe. She looked at my cheek and asked me how that happened. I said I was chasing Mandy and I fell. My mom said, oh yeah, Mandy called, she said she had to practice piano and that she would meet you an hour later than you planned. Guess you found each other, she said.

Mandy didnít talk to me for two weeks after that. I decided that since I didnít have anything better to do, and since no one else seemed to care, I would clean up Monkey Island. Pete and me spent a whole morning filling a garbage bag with junk. But when my mom woke up to make lunch and we showed her all the stuff weíd cleaned out of the woods, she started screaming about tetanus some more and also that Mrs. Bonaventure told her I was hanging around in the woods with high school boys and what did I think I was doing? After that we had to stay close to the house, and that was when I read your book My Side of the Mountain to Pete in the hammock, because both of us still fit in it last summer and it was the only shady spot in the yard. Then Mandy and me made up because she said anger comes back to witches three times stronger so itís best to practice forgiveness and also because it was almost the first day of school and no way was either of us starting off Middle School alone.

With 6th grade starting and joining the Earth Savers, I kind of forgot about your book for a while until I saw Pete in the backyard with a net. I went outside and said what are you doing Pete you look like a crazy and he said only grown-ups can be crazies and I said no way, idiot, kids can be crazy too and we argued about that for a while until I could see he was starting to believe me and a whole new fear was welling up in his face and I started to worry that if he got distracted Iíd never find out what was going on. So I said OK Pete youíre right, only grown-ups can be crazies like Aunt Maureen and Mrs. Roebling across the street (who has to be babysat like a little kid and sometimes walks outside in her nightgown which is totally not long enough to pass for a dress), now Pete, please tell me what you are doing with that net. He was trying to catch a falcon to train, like Frightful in your book. He said that if he was ever going to be able to live off the land he would definitely need a trained falcon since that seemed like the most important thing your Sam had with him in the Catskills. And I thought oh crap, but out loud I said Petey are you thinking about running away? And his mouth got real small and he said no. It was obvious he was lying. So I said you know the Catskills arenít really near here, right? And he kept looking at the ground and swinging the net up and down with one arm, chopping at the dirt with the wire rim and said I was thinking of going to the Catalina Foothills. And I said Catalina Foothills is not a mountain range, it is a city, and anyway if you did go there Dad supposedly has some sweet condo so you would not have to live off the land. Pete said that he didnít want to stay in Dadís sweet condo but that he might like to sneak into town from his secret forest hut and check it out for himself. I stamped my foot and said Pete even if you did go to Arizona none of this crap would work because itís the desert there and you would need to know a whole new set of stuff to live off that land. Which is when Pete screamed at the top of his lungs for me to shut up and that he hated me and he threw the net, really hard, so that it flipped through the air and bruised my arm. Then Pete turned around and ran into the woods of Monkey Island.

So I guess Iím hoping you could write me back that itís not actually possible to make a lamp out of deer fat and a turtle shell. Maybe you could write that itís all 100% fiction and say something about where you got the ideas. I think if I showed Pete a letter that said that, signed by Mrs. Jean Craighead George so heíd know it was true, then he would know that running away isnít very realistic. Especially to Arizona, which is a lot further from here than the Catskills were from New York City in your book. Who knows what could happen to him before he even got there? Heíd never be able to make all the bus changes properly. And something like that will probably cause my mom to start running around in shortie nighties. So I really hope that it turns out you do read your fan mail.

Thanks for taking the time to read my letter. Please write back soon. And save the earth!!!


                                   Jennifer Maureen Mackleson

Kristen O'Toole recently completed her MFA in creative writing at Columbia University. Her fiction has also appeared in Fogged Clarity, Gigantic, and Flatmancrooked's Anthology of Great New Writing Done During an Economic Depression. She is currently working on a young adult novel.

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