Friday, August 13, 2010

JIM KJELGAARD, American Author

JIM KJELGAARD, American Author
A Recommendation by Albie

Just recently, while searching out good things to read to my kids, I saw a book at our library book-sale that had a VERY familiar name on its spine: Jim Kjelgaard. Immediately I was thrust back in time to my earliest reading days, when Kjelgaard's was a name I would search for in the school and public libraries of my idyllic small town boyhood.

Of course I gladly paid the fifty cents for the book [THE BLACK FAWN, 1958, one of Jim's best, I now believe] and went home thinking of what I knew and didn't know about this interesting-- if largely forgotten-- American author.

I had heard and read a few things over the years. Someone had told me once at Bible college in the late '90s that Kjelgaard was a suicide; I also knew he was almost completely self-taught as a writer; but I found myself wanting to know more.

Kjelgaard [A Norwegian name, pronounced "KYELL-gard"... yup, he was a fellow Norski! YAY!] wrote well over 40 books, which were always about the out-of-doors and almost always about animals. In his time he was a VERY popular juvenile writer, although today he is mainly remembered for the trilogy he wrote about 3 generations of Irish Setters: BIG RED, IRISH RED, and OUTLAW RED. These three books have never gone out of print since their first publication in the 1940s.

The first book I ever read by him was called SNOW DOG, originally published in 1948. I came across an old dust-jacketed copy at my buddy Paul Schwartz's house in Canelo, AZ about 1976 or so. After I commented that I liked the exciting cover illustration, good ol' Paul said, "Oh yeah, that's a good one, Albie! You should read it." I did.

That book, like most of Kjelgaard's, centered around a noble animal [this time a half-Siberian Husky named Chiri] that lived by the rough and tumble code of the wilderness. The boy protagonist Link, in what I would find to be the pattern for Kjelgaard heroes, is a lonely adolescent who befriends our Great Canine. Many wonderful adventures ensue, of course.

Although you could definitely say that Kjelgaard was a "formula" writer of sorts, he did indeed posess some prose qualities that really set him apart. First, he was a marvelous conveyor of the wonder and beauty of nature. For example, the descriptions of the landscape and wildlife in SNOW DOG betrayed, even to my "tween-aged" mind, an obviously intimate knowledge of the northern woodlands of its setting, and the details of Link's fictional life as a trapper bore the same marks of pure authenticity.

Kjelgaard also had an ability that even some best-selling novelists of today would and should envy: he was able to describe scenes of pure action with an amazingly believable and vigorous fluidity.

When I read SNOW DOG in those arid Southern Arizona foothills, it really was as though i was right there with Link and Chiri... experiencing the cold and harshness of the artic outdoors.

At that time, it was just about everything I could have wanted in a work of fiction. That book was indeed like a "frigate that took me lands away," as Emily Dickenson memorably described good reading. For the hours I spent holding it I was in another lifetime... another reality.

And That is just plain old good writin'!

Well, in short... I was hooked.

And luckily, in those days, his books were still widely available for loan to any interested boy. This is no longer so today, I am told, and that is a downright shame.

Here is some interesting info about J.K. that I was able to find on the wonderful world wide web.

James Arthur Kjelgaard was born on December 10, 1910 in New York City. The son of a doctor, he had four brothers and one sister.

While he was still very young, his family purchased an 1800 acre farm in Potter County, PA. Here he and his brothers spent long days in the outdoors hunting and fishing.

The family next moved to Galeton, PA. The people in the area were poor and this meant that Dr. Kjelgaard didn't always bring in a lot of money. The Kjelgaard boys therefore actually supplemented the dinner table with fish and other small game animals they trapped and hunted!!

During the Galeton years, Jim began to have a passion for writing, and spent time in his room writing poems and short stories. [He completed his first story-- which he later actually sold-- at the age of eleven! ]

Young Jim continued to write, and submitted stories to many hunting and fishing magazines. In 1928, his senior year at Galeton High School, Jim sold his first story for a two-year subscription to an outdoors magazine.

After high school, Jim and his brothers looked for jobs of any type. They harvested potatoes, dug ditches and then in the 1930s began to guide hunters.

Jim took two years of Syracuse University extension courses, while working full time. During this time he continued to write prolifically.

One of Mr. Kjelgaard's readers, Eddie Dresen, began corresponding with him and quickly Jim learned Eddie was short for Edna!! As fate would have it, Jim traveled to Milwaukee to meet her in 1939, and they were married soon after and lived in Milwaukee. They had one child, a daughter named Karen. Jim enjoyed teaching Karen about the outdoors, and would delight in taking her hunting and fishing.

This daughter Karen has written an interesting article about her Dad that is posted on a tribute site. [Jim Kjelgaard, A Daughter's Memoir by Karen Kjelgaard, November 1998, ] In it, she writes:

"We went to Big Cedar Lake every summer, and I remember fishing from a pier and finding at least ten little warm water fish on my line when I pulled it in. Dad had swum under the pier and put them there. It was the sort of kindly, humorous thing that appealed to him."

Jim, Eddie and Karen made many trips out West, taking photographs and doing research for Jim's books. Later their family moved to Phoenix, Arizona hoping to improve Jim's health. While very different from the country he grew up in, Jim came to love the desert and its stark beauty.

This part was, of course, of great interest to me.... At least 2 of Jim's books that I have read were actually set here in AZ: DESERT DOG [about a greyhound stranded in the Sonoran wilderness] and HI JOLLY [a great treatment of Hahdi Ali and the famous US Cavalry "Camel Corps" experiment.] Both are worth seeking out for any Arizonan.

As I had heard, Kjelgaard's life did indeed end in suicide. The full story is that he had long suffered a variety of debilitating medical conditions. As a child, he suffered epileptic-like seizures that were eventually diagnosed as a brain tumor, and treated by drilling a hole in his skull. This led to excruciating head-aches as he grew older. He also experienced stabbing back pain and advanced arthritis most of his life.

Daughter Karen remembers: "My father's last years were marked by frequent depression and illness. No one really knew what was wrong with him. He spent more and more time with physicians, but we never knew for sure what his illness was. A brain tumor was never confirmed. He became suicidal, (and) was patently deeply unhappy."

On July 12, 1959, he shot himself.

I often thought of writing to him when I was a boy. I had no idea that he had died 5 years before I was even born!

Still... He is worth remembering... and reading... even today. One reason his books are so compelling [he still has a wide internet following and his books are much collected to this day by those who remember him] is that he did NOT believe in writing down to kids. He once said that "kids can spot weaknesses in a juvenile book that would get by in a book for adults."

His philosophy was: "You have to struggle to get up to the kids' level." I like that!

My favorite of his books was-- and still remains-- CHIP THE DAM BUILDER, a novel from 1950. It is the story of an old and wise beaver [named Chip, of course] who leads a whole colony of beavers in search of a new home. It is an amazingly detailed extrapolation of an animal's toils and struggles, written sensitively by a man who must have indeed believed that his audience deserved the very best of his efforts.

I can't do much about his overall reputation, to be sure, but I CAN make dang sure my kids know about him.

I think he'd be happiest with that, actually.


1 comment:

Robert Schell said...

What and interesting story. I came across your blog after reading today of Kjelgaard's suicide for the first time myself. I read anything of his I could get my hands on when I was a kid and, even if formulaic, his stories were extremely influential in my early formative years. I really tried to adopt the values displayed by the heroes in his stories and retained it over my lifetime. Thank you for writing this. It's a real shame that these books are largely forgotten to the youth of today.