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Book Review: The Story of My Boyhood and Youth by John Muir

Reviewed by Marion Randall Parsons


The life of a child among educated people to-day is so sheltered from hardship, so protected from even minor discomfort, that the story of this stern Scotch boyhood comes to us almost like a record from a different world. We read how Mr. Muir was sent to school before he had "completed his third year," and how a little later long lessons in French, Latin, and English, in spelling, history, arithmetic, and geography were supplemented at home by so many Bible lessons that "by the time I was eleven years of age I had about three-fourths of the Old Testament and all of the New by heart." After the journey to Wisconsin, for long school tasks and the sound thrashings that accompanied each mistake was substituted the unremitting toil of reclaiming a farm from the wilderness -- in summer time a "hard sweaty day of about sixteen or seventeen hours" of heavy farm labor, where "grinding scythes, feeding the animals, chopping stove wood and carrying water up the hill from the spring" constituted the chores to be done before breakfast, a mere prelude to the real work in the harvest fields; in winter, though "fuel was embarassingly abundant and cost nothing but cutting and common sense... the only fire for the whole house was the kitchen stove... around which in hard zero weather the whole family of ten persons shivered, and beneath which in the morning we found socks and course, soggy boots frozen." "Excepting Sundays we boys had only two days of the year to ourselves, the Fourth of July and the First of January. Sundays were less than half our own, on account of Bible lessons, Sunday School lessons and church services."

There is much in the book to make us thankful that brighter, easier lives fall to the lot of the children we now know. Yet when we consider the discipline of mind and body, the fortitude, the rare powers of concentration, the keen appreciation of the scanty hours of pleasure that this harsh existence engendered, we wonder whether the indulged children of to-day, satiated with amusement and ignorant of work, will at three score years and ten face life with the unfailing interest, the zest of enjoyment, the unflagging intellectual activity that so distinguish Mr. Muir to-day. It was a life, perhaps, to deaden the ambition and dull the perceptions of many a child; but in this vigorous Scotch lad the hunger to learn and create, the interest in wild nature and love of its beauty rose triumphant above hard labor and time-starved opportunity.

Of absorbing interest is the story of the growing boy wresting from his hours of sleep the leisure to work out his inventions -- his "early-rising machine," self-setting sawmill, thermometer, etc., which were destined to open the door for the education he so longed for. Equally absorbing are the chapters on the plant and animal life of that Middle West wilderness, much of it vanished now as are the vast fields of California wild flowers that Mr. Muir also saw in their full glory. Of the passenger pigeons he says, "I have seen flocks streaming south in the fall...like a mighty river in the sky, widening, contracting, descending like falls and cataracts, and rising suddenly here and there in huge ragged masses like high-plashing spray."

The book if full of beauty and of the exultant joy of youth. "Oh that glorious Wisconsin wilderness! Everything new and pure in the very prime of the spring when Nature's pulses were beating highest and mysteriously keeping time with our own! Young hearts, young leaves, flowers, animals, the winds and the streams and the sparkling lake, all wildlife, gladly rejoicing together!" As we close its covers the strongest impression that lives with us is of a boy's life, not darkened by long days of toil, but brightened by an inner light that made visible to him the glory and the wonder of the world. Like the little black water-bugs whose playing in the meadow springs he loved to watch, Mr. Muir's heart all his life seems to have been "dancing to a music" most of us never hear.


Source: Sierra Club Bulletin, Vol. IX, No. 2, June, 1913.


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