Jean Craighead George’s 1959 novel My Side of the Mountain is an excellent young-adult novel (177 pages) that makes a poignant statement about a conflict that wells within many of us: how we can respond when we are tempted to leave the entire world behind. This is the story of Sam Gribley, who lives in a cramped apartment in New York City with his eight siblings. When he finds out about an abandoned farm that his grandfather once owned, near Delhi, New York, he bones up on survival skills and goes out there to live in the woods, doing his best to live off the land. He starts to live much like the Native Americans did, finding carcasses and preserving them, to last him a long time. One scary moment comes when he insulates his tree home too effectively, so that the fire that he sets to warm himself almost poisons him with carbon dioxide. Over time, as Sam incidentally meets people, he realizes that he misses social contact, and so he ultimately learns that he must balance a desire to live an environmentally pure life from the land with a desire for human company; even though he is initially troubled by his family’s idea to build a house on this farmland, he realizes that the compromises of domestic living are part of the price of companionship.
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The title of this novel relates to the setting, in that it suggests the isolation that Sam wants for himself. He goes to his grandfather’s former property, with the desire to make a place for himself in nature, away from everyone else – on his side of the mountain. The conflict is between Sam’s desire to live by himself, far away from the noise and clutter of typical human activity. Sam’s father agrees with his decision, up to a point – at the end of the story, Sam’s father brings the rest of the family out to the farm to live together.
With regard to theme, the title of this novel could be something that a petulant child would say, in the middle of a dispute with a sibling. It is difficult to imagine what life would be like in an apartment with one’s parents and eight siblings, especially for a twelve-year-old, who is just entering that phase in life when one wants a little bit more independence for oneself, enough space to start figuring out who he wants to become. This is a time in life when this desire hits just about everyone, as one realizes that all of the truths that one believes in are really the truths of one’s parents, and that it is time to start formulating one’s own truths. So Sam retreats to what he considers “his side of the mountain” to start living in a completely different way. By removing himself from society, Sam gets away from all of the distractions in his home and gets to live life the way he wants to live it – not only free from the control of his parents, but from all of the chaos and clutter that living with other people tends to entail over time. While he ultimately realizes that he needs human companionship, there is a lot to like, for him, about this way of living, and he only lets it go reluctantly.