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November 18, 1990|Sonja Bolle

WOODSONG by Gary Paulsen (Bradbury Press: $12.95; 137 pp.) A word of warning before recommending Gary Paulsen's "Woodsong" for unsupervised reading by young people: Parents may wake one Sunday morning to find their 12-year-old planting a "For Sale" sign in the front yard and scouring the classified ads for real estate in Alaska.

In fairness, "Woodsong" is a book to make a heart of any age race. On the surface, it tells the story of how Paulsen, an author noted for his books about nature and life out-of-doors for young adults, learned to run sled dogs and trained for his first Iditarod race. But there is much more going on here. "I understood almost nothing about the woods until it was nearly too late," he begins. The tale that follows does not describe in a logical way the steps he took to learn dog-sledding--although there's enough of that here to delight the most practical of city slickers--but rather the series of truths that nature and the wisest sled dogs revealed to him.

The gist of the lyrical stories is how little Paulsen knew of himself until he let himself be taught; how little he, a woodsman, knew of nature. On one run with the dogs, he comes across wolves making a kill. Never having witnessed such ferocity, he was horrified (wildlife programs on television always cut away before the real savagery begins, he observes). He could not tear his eyes away, but when it became too much for him, he yelled. One wolf stood up on his hind legs and looked at him over the expanse of snow. At that moment, Paulsen writes, "I began to understand that they are not wrong or right--they just are. Wolves don't know they are wolves. That's just a name we have put on them, something we have done. I do not know how wolves think of themselves, nor does anybody, but I did know and still know that it was wrong to think they should be the way I wanted them to be."

The last quarter of the book is devoted to the story of the Iditarod, the dog-sled race that runs from Anchorage to Nome, more than 1,100 miles across the Alaskan wilderness. Here the reflective stories give way to a one-two-punch descriptive style, as the storyteller endures bitter cold, sleep deprivation, starvation (one of his dogs refuses all food except the rations Paulsen has brought for himself) and the resulting hallucinations. The 17 days of grueling travel take an almost physical toll on the reader, who can't help but be right there in Paulsen's boots when he finally glimpses the lights of Nome that signal the end of the race: "When I realize what they are, I stop the team.

"I do not want to go in and finish the race.

"I do not understand why, but I do not want to go in. I actually began to walk up and take my leader and turn the dogs around and run back, back. . . . There is no sense to it but somehow it is because the race is something that doesn't seem like it can be done . . . . And yet you do it and then it becomes something you don't want to end . . . ever."

The stirring triumph of Paulsen's race combines with the wonder and mystery of the earlier stories, and that balance is the sign of a great storyteller: A tale that can induce alternately a languorous dreaminess and a fierce desire to climb the nearest mountain has done more than its job.

COUSINS by Virginia Hamilton (Philomel Books: $14.95; 110 pp.) "Cousins" starts off like one of those "teen problem" books in which a sensitive child wakes up to the dangers and anxieties of the world around her. Cammy, Virginia Hamilton's heroine, lives entirely in the world of her family: her kind and beautiful mother, her changeable but idolized older brother, and her adored Gram Tut, who lives in the Care home. On the other hand, there are her teen-age cousin Richie, irresponsible and alcoholic; his younger sister, the maddeningly perfect Patty Ann (who turns out to be bulemic), and their mother, the hated Aunt Effie.

Even before this seemingly predictable story takes its unusual turn, however, Hamilton's eye for detail fleshes out the characters and brings hard contours to the rural setting where Cammy feels so safe. On her way to summer camp, the girl contemplates her town: "Mama says it's no more than a village. If you're a town you have to have a jail!" she thinks cheerfully. Through observations such as these, Hamilton uses Cammy's innocent perspective to indicate the subtle tensions that move the story.

The pivotal chapter in which disaster strikes is almost surrealistic, and threatens to lose readers who haven't the patience to wait for subsequent dialogue to confirm the tragedy. But Hamilton's ambitious attempt to portray a child's grief succeeds completely, and treats with utter seriousness Cammy's sense of guilt at having--to her mind--brought on her cousin's fate.

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