As an avid news reader in the 1950s, I had tired of the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series. Luckily someone suggested I read Jim Kjelgaard, and I was hooked: “Big Red” (later a Disney movie), “Irish Red,” “Outlaw Red,” as well as many other tales of boy and dog adventures in forests and streams.
Thirty or 40 years later, long after I’d moved to Tioga County, I was excited to learn that Jim had lived in Galeton, graduating from high school and beginning his writing career there. I’ve met several of his extended family, but his move to Wisconsin to marry and his early death (1959, at age 48, by suicide, in illness, pain and depression) meant most of his surviving Twin Tiers relatives did not know him well.
But it still seemed special to me that I had unknowingly moved to the area which inspired some of Jim’s outdoor adventure stories. I was no hunter, trapper or fisherman, but I had a dog that accompanied me playing in the woods, crossing streams on hurricane-downed trees (he swam) and other fairly tame childhood doings.
Lynne recently bought me one of Jim’s books, and we took turns reading it aloud. It was clearly for a young audience, but his love for the outdoors, and his early environmental awareness, came through loud and clear.
I’ll quote two passages from “Stormy” to show his identity as a committed naturalist and environmentalist. First, a straight-forward statement pulled from the middle of an adventure paragraph: “the senses of the dullest animal shame those of the keenest human.”
A much longer rumination on North America is found later: “Long ago, hordes of waterfowl literally choked every flyway... Then came civilization. Besides slaughtering millions of ducks and geese... modern man invaded ancient breeding and feeding grounds. Millions of acres of marshland... (were) drained and converted to agriculture and other uses.”
He continued: “Only a few far-sighted people appreciated the situation... Fighting... market hunters and thoughtless sportsmen, stubborn conservationists finally (won)...protection (for breeding grounds)... (and many) marshes and ponds were restored in areas where they had been drained.”
I don’t think his environmentally-aware passages in a boys’ adventure book stood out to me at the time, but perhaps these natural history and political digressions made his books seem more “adult” to me. I remember my parents talking about Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” her expose of our chemical poisoning of the environment (most famously DDT’s role in the rapid decline of raptors), and I’m sure Jim Kjelgaard was aware of Ms. Carson as well.
Jim’s daughter (his only child) wrote a brief biological sketch of him years after his death (which occurred when she was just 19). She described his willingness (even insistence) on taking her with him into wilderness: rural Wisconsin when they were city-dwellers in that state, and national parks on annual vacations.
She also wrote about his support for the African-American community in Milwaukee, at a time when most whites were blissfully unaware, or willfully ignorant, of pervasive and systemic racism and segregation. He was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and hosted NAACP meetings in their family home in the 1940s.
Sadly, many of Jim’s books are out-of-print, and generally hard to find in bookstores and libraries.
Kasey Coolidge of From My Shelf bookstore has a few of Jim’s books in stock, and the Green Free Library lists 19 titles, all in the basement, awaiting a request to a librarian to bring them upstairs to be checked out. Happily, the Galeton Library also lists about two dozen Kjelgaard titles, but it seems other local libraries are Kjelgaard-less.