Paulsen, Gary. THE COOKCAMP. New York:
Orchard Books, 1991. ISBN 0531059278.
This story, set during World War II, tells of a five-year-old boy’s time with his grandmother in a northern
Minnesota. His grandmother is the cook in a camp for a crew building a road to the Canadian border, which will serve as an
escape route if the Germans invade the United States.
In this short novel, Paulsen takes us to a rough work camp in the wilderness. We learn about the surroundings through
the eyes of our nameless, five-year-old protagonist. Although there is some description of the camp and the trailer where
he stays with his grandmother, these are not the things which make the greatest impression on the boy. He is more overwhelmed
by smells and sounds than by visuals; the thundering roar of the trucks, the smell of buttered biscuits, these are his initial
impressions of the cookcamp. And most of all, he is overwhelmed by the men of the road crew. When they enter the cook trailer
for the first time, the boy thinks, “It was like the outside came in … like the woods came in, like the world
came in.” (p. 27)
Although he remains nameless throughout the book, we learn a great deal about the young boy. We see him in moments
of intense loneliness when he misses his mother, we feel the love he has for his grandmother as he takes comfort in her lullabies
and the scent of lavender water she wears, and we see his desire to be like the big men as he practices spitting while helping
them drive the big trucks. Even though he is younger than the target audience of the book, readers can still identify with
these universal feelings.
This story of separation reflects the reality of life in the United States during World War II. With the men fighting,
many women had to take jobs in factories, and the children felt the loss of both parents.
Paulsen tells the story in a style that reflects the emotions of a young child, from the exhilaration of driving a
dump truck to the unbearable feelings of loneliness for his mother. In addition to presenting a small “slice of life”
for a child during World War II, this is also a story about the bond forged between a boy and his grandmother that still exists
years later, although they are far apart physically. In a “portrait” at the end of the book, the boy brings his
son to share a slice of pie with her and realizes how special their time together in the cookcamp was. This story will touch
both children and adults with its wonderful imagery and depth of emotion.