I’ve read a lot of Scholastic Book Services titles from the 50s and 60s over the course of this project. On the whole they rate an A for Acceptable: clear storytelling with a beginning, middle and end and a goal-driven protagonist. Sometimes things might get a little weird, or occasionally there is a really memorable characterization, but on the whole these are solid and workmanlike titles (except the deeply troubling experience that is Prom Trouble. I am still going to have words with zombie James L. Summers).
What I’m saying is that, of all of the thousands of titles churned out by Scholastic through the years, this week’s book is Scholasticest: competent but unremarkable.
The Plot: The title Terror on the Mountain writes a check it can’t cash- there is little terror even when you finally get to The Mountain. More accurate is the author’s original title, The Summer I Was Lost, but even then it is more metaphorical than literal.
14 year old Paul Griffin is a little clumsy and bad at team sports, a condition that both his peers and authority figures constantly torment him about. During a co-ed softball game, the ball bounces off of his glove and bonks his female teammate on the head. Unsure what to do, Paul picks up the ball and throws it in, igniting the wrath of Ann’s friends who knock him down and beat him up for not helping her. Starting his freshman year with the reputation as the boy who is no good at sports and was publicly beaten up by a bunch of girls kind of takes a toll of Paul’s self-esteem.
When he goes to finalize his classes for the next year his guidance counselor is having none of his excuses, however. This is America, young man!
“The youth of our nation need to be tough, not flabby, soft bookworms who haven’t good muscular control!”
Jeez, how are we going beat the Commies to the moon if you don’t join the basketball team, Paul?
Paul explains that he likes hiking and camping and then the guidance counselor threatens to put a note in his permanent record about how Paul and his friends were caught pranking the couples parked in Lover’s Lane the other night, and Paul is like, ok, fine, sports are great.
Paul has taken a summer job working at a local truck farm, which mostly involves hoeing turnips. Unfortunately, Paul isn’t able to keep up with the older boys that have been hired on for the summer, and when he redoubles his efforts he passes out from heat exhaustion. The farm’s owner lets him know that he appreciates Paul’s effort, but he is losing money on him and gently fires him.
Paul’s parents are very understanding about the situation, and a few days later surprise Paul with the announcement that, on the recommendation of his favorite teacher, they are sending him to summer camp in New Hampshire. Coincidentally, Mr. Perker is also the counselor in charge of botany and outdoorsmanship at this particular camp. Paul agrees that “I couldn’t imagine a camp that wouldn’t be fun if he had anything to do with it,” so his father puts him on a bus to New Hampshire with some man-to-man advice:
Before he left he told me to have a good time, and he gave me his old machete that he had used in the war.
In 1965 a machete counts as words of wisdom.
Away from the mean softball girls of his hometown, Paul blossoms at Camp Sunlight, making many friends and heartily enjoying all that camp has to offer:
They seemed to know a lot of songs that involved stamping or clapping or shouting, songs I had never heard before. Most had lots of verses and I could learn the choruses quickly and join in.
Paul finds a best friend in amiable jock Dale, who starts him on a program of morning push-ups, as well as a favorite counselor in Jim, who teaches “nature”.
Paul has less praise for his “survival” counselor, Hank, who mostly just lets the kids sit around smoking cigarettes and telling dirty jokes instead of teaching them how to build lean-tos and not eat poisonous berries. Foreshadowing!
Plus, there is Mr. Perker, who outside of the classroom is a total hippie:
“You see, in order to be at home in the woods you have to conquer your desire to destroy. It is only when you learn to live at peace with yourself and the other creatures of the woods, that your eyes really begin to open to what is around you.”
Which is all well and fine, until Mr. Perker has an encounter with his sworn enemy, the porcupine, when one sneaks up and bites him on the toe, causing him to come down with PORCUPINE RAGE and chase it around trying to bash it over the head with a rock.
He admitted that he was prejudiced against porcupines, because he had spent so many hours cleaning up camps they had ruined and that he also hated them because they killed so many trees. He said that he realized that killing porkies made him a bit of a hypocrite, and he was sorry that he had been carried away by the pain and surprise of being bitten. But he said that it was probably good for us to see that nearly every philosophy had a flaw in it somewhere.
So, love and respect all of God’s creatures, except the PORCUPINE! RAGE! SMASH!
So, the book is almost over, and while I’m really glad that Paul is feeling better about himself and taking the initiative to “develop good muscle control”, but are we ever going to get to the mountain and/or terror?
Well, for some reason Doofus Hank is leading the campers on a hike into the White Mountains and Pemigewasset Wilderness. Do you think that two weeks of traveling salesman jokes will prepare Paul for when things inevitably go wrong?
The group gets off to a late start because Hank stops to hit on some college girls, so by the time Paul reaches the summit of Mount Lincoln, they are caught in a lightning storm.
At that moment Hank raced up the last rise to the summit screaming at the top of his voice, “Run! Run for your lives!”
Paul panics and races down the mountain, getting separated from the rest of the campers. The storm quickly passes, and with no sign of Doofus Hank or the rest of his group, Paul decides to hike toward the highway. It isn’t until the sun starts to go down that Paul realizes that in his terror, he ran down the wrong side of the mountain.
Paul ends up stuck in the woods for three days, because unbeknownst to him Doofus Hank tells the police that Paul was totally with the rest of the group on the other side of the mountain. Jeez, can we fire this guy already?
Paul improvises shelter and tools using the limited supplies in his knapsack, including making a fishing hook out of a paperclip. Raccoons eat the brownies his Mom sent him and at one point he encounters some bears, but things mostly go smoothly until he gives himself a concussion trying to free his precious paperclip-hook from some underwater rocks.
(Why did he have a paperclip? Because his parents sent him a stack of newspaper clippings about how his sports-crazed guidance counselor was in a car wreck. Ha-ha!)
Eventually he hits the main trail where he runs into Jim and Mr. Perker and the rest of the search party, who fix him up with an impressive head-bandage and inform him that Hank has been fired. He is reunited with his parents, who accept the camp director’s offer of an additional week free, presumably to bribe them out of suing for negligence.
That night Paul is surprised to receive a special “honor award” at the campfire, which also includes many authentic Native American dances in his honor.
Do we have a moral to this story? We do:
And so maybe I could say that in finding my way out of the woods I found myself. For that it was worth being lost.
Sign It Was Written in 1965 Department: “I never saw him later in any other clothes but the ones he was wearing then, dungaree pants ripped off to make shorts, a blue shirt, and a dungaree jacket.”
Jim is not only rocking the Jean Tuxedo, but he’s stylin’ a snappy hot pants variation!