Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Man Who Persevered

Comment in another person’s blog reminded me of a writer I admired in my youth and hadn’t thought about in a long while.

Jim Kjelgaard was one of those many writers who influenced me, and it’s fitting to pay him a bit of tribute here. Though born in New York City, Kjelgaard grew up in Potter County, Pennsylvania, which is less than 85 miles as the crow flies from where I was raised and now live again.

Best remembered today as the author of stories for boys, he was also a prolific writer of outdoor articles and Western short stories.

I was already an avid fan of Jack London, Zane Grey and James Oliver Curwood when a friend loaned me a copy of “Big Red,” probably Kjelgaard’s most famous book and one of the best dog stories of all time. This story about a young trapper and a champion Irish setter blew me away. Obviously it inspired the same feelings in others because it won some prestigious awards and became the basis for a Disney film (which bears tenuous resemblance to the book).

Since I spent a lot of my time roaming in the woods, fishing, hunting and trapping (I liked animals too much to ever be much good at the latter two activities), I felt an immediate kinship with Kjelgaard who had been doing the same things most of his life. Like Zane Grey, he began his writing career with articles about the sports he loved. Impressed by those articles, an editor urged him to consider doing a book for boys.

“Forest Patrol,” that first novel, came out in 1941 and was about a ranger in Pennsylvania’s Black Forest, a job one of his brother’s had held.

Sometime after his first books appeared, Jim received a letter from a fan named “Eddie.” As it turned out, Eddie was the nickname of a young lady named Edna Dresen. After a period of correspondence, Kjelgaard went to Wisconsin to meet Eddie, who soon after became his wife.

As I said, I early felt a kinship with Kjelgaard and since some of my own first published articles appeared in outdoor magazines that alone would be sufficient reason to remember him with fondness.

There’s another aspect of Kjelgaard’s career which is less known. In his youth he had suffered episodes similar to epileptic seizures which were tentatively diagnosed as the result of a tumor. An operation provided temporary relief. But for the last 20 years of his life he suffered chronic pain which eventually led him to take his own life.

When you’re feeling put upon by problems in your writing life consider what it would be like to persevere under those conditions. Despite being in constant pain, Kjelgaard wrote some 40 books, numerous short stories and articles. In a 1960 tribute, Mrs. Kjelgaard said her husband gave family, friends and readers 20 years of inspiring wisdom and courage.

You can read some of his short stories and learn more about the writer at http://jimkjelgaard.com/ and http://home.sprintmail.com/~charterbus/kjelgaard.htm