by Gary Paulsen
Laurel-Leaf Books, 1995
105 pages / $6.29 buy from Amazon
1. For my fifth grade class, Gary Paulsen was considered the pinnacle of literary merit. Second only to R. L. Stine.
2. Most people I talk to remember reading Paulsen’s novel Hatchet pretty well, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who remembers The Rifle.
3. The Rifle is about a man who carves a muzzle-loaded rifle out of a tree branch and spends a long time on it. He then sells it to a Revolutionary War soldier who dies of dysentery after killing a lot of British officers. Then an old man buys the rifle. He’s lonely and his life sucks, and the boy who lives across the street’s life is lonely, too. The boy’s dad is a trucker and doesn’t care about him. Then the man’s gun accidentally fires and kills the boy.
4. I lied about that.
5. I think in my memory I joined this novel with another novel that I read that same Summer as a kid. I dreamed an entire subplot about the little boy and his relationship with his trucker dad, writing him postcards and eating ice cream.
6. I think that book was written by Beverly Cleary.
7. She was pretty well liked in my grade school, too.
8. Here’s the real plot of The Rifle:
9. The book is even sadder than I remembered.
10. The muzzle-loaded rifle was made by a dedicated gunsmith and he did sell it to a sharpshooting soldier, but after the soldier dies of dysentery, the gun is stuck in an attic until a guy finds it and sells it to a dude at a gun show. The gun show dude is your stereotypical stand-yer-ground-pry-em-out-of-my-cold-dead-hands- lives-in-a-van-off-the-grid-type dude. This gun guy drinks a lot of beer and the omniscient narrator tells us that later he gets stomach cancer and dies. This stomach cancer guy’s van breaks down and he trades the rifle and an Elvis painting on velvet to a mechanic for van parts. The mechanic takes both the gun and the painting home and places them on his mantel. Then one day, he’s lighting a fire in the fireplace and a spark from the fire lights some old powder in the gun and it goes off and the bullet flies through the house and kills a little boy who lives across the street. Then the novel discusses how the loss of the little boy’s life ruins everyone else’s lives.
11. The book is a stone cold bummer.
12. I remember asking my mom to buy this book for me because I was obsessed with guns in 1996. You could be obsessed with guns in 1996 and no one really batted an eye. You could go around your elementary school in fatigues and people thought you just loved to play army on the playground, or that you loved hunting. At least that’s what it was like in West Tennessee. I don’t think it’s like that anywhere now.
13. I am always surprised when I re-read a novel from my childhood. Needless to say, Gatsby is way different. Dr. Suess is a little racist. But this book is far beyond its suggested grade level.
14. Modernism expresses a lack in objective truth and tries to deal with the horrors of modern life. Not many grade school books seem to fit in this category, but Paulsen’s do. Is he the Hemingway of fifth grade boys books? I think he’s at least heavily influenced by Hemingway. Just like The Sun Also Rises, if Paulsen had just ended the book twenty pages earlier, he could have saved a whole lot of heartbreak, but neither Hemingway nor Paulsen are interested in sparing a reader’s feelings.
15. Now that guns are even further entrenched in the national conversation, Paulsen’s message about guns resonates even more strongly.
16. This novel is a little haunting. I’ve only read it twice. Once in fifth grade and then again when writing this review. This novel sticks with you.
17. “… easy, so easy to see backward as soon as the vision is moved to the present and then just slightly to the future it fogs and blurs and becomes impossible.”
18. Amazon.com customers hate The Rifle. It’s called “tripe,” “propaganda,” and “drivel” several times in the one-star reviews.
19. C. wallis’s review has a nice e. e. cummings vibe:
after having read a number of gary’s books
i can’t believe he wrote this propoganda dribble
for the left. i was suprised at first but then
i started reviewing some of his other books
i have and if you look hard enough you can see
a small anti-american, anti-gun thread in his
works…what a shame
20. Charles L. Griffin Jr. says, “Review after review by children show that most of them miss the point Paulsen was trying to make. One child even thought it was neat because it taught him who should be killed in battle first.”
21. I can see how the antigun message can be a little heavy-handed. Paulsen is not kind when depicting the NRA members of this novel. And, after all, the book really does have a gun killing a boy independent of any person pulling the trigger, thus negating the “guns don’t kill people argument.”
22. When does a blatant agenda overshadow a great literary work?
23. Despite the heavy-handed message, I am more struck by the absolute pain in this novel. Yes, everyone who comes into contact with the rifle is caused pain and suffering because of it, but isn’t that more of a typically Modernist use of the high mimetic? People suffer pain and agony, many because of guns. Shouldn’t kids be made aware of this when they’re a middle reader?
24. A kid says “The Rifle Was a very good book and it was very interesting I like how they made the rifles in the book and they should make another book just like the rifle.”
25. That pretty much sums everything up.
Quincy Rhoads teaches English for Austin Peay State University and the University of Phoenix, Nashville campus. His writing has most recently appeared on Everyday Genius, THE2NDHAND, and on this blog.