Gary Paulsen’s THE
RIFLE is a novel written for middle school students. The book is, as its name implies, about a rifle. Not just any rifle,
but a once-in-a-lifetime “sweet” rifle. Considered sweet because of its beauty, certainly; but also sweet because
of its incredible accuracy.
Paulsen follows the rifle’s
creation in pre-Revolutionary War times from the maker’s apprenticeship, to his mastery of the trade, and the finding
of the wood which would become the stock. In painstaking detail, he describes the work of creating the stock, the barrel and
all the fittings. Then Paulsen follows the rifle from 1868 to 1994 through its various owners. John Byam, a woodsman, bought
the rifle and killed a British soldier with it that same day. Paulsen vividly describes the setting of the first part of THE
RIFLE, especially the lifestyle of Cornish McManus, the rifle’s maker. Byam dies of dysentery while fighting in the
war, and a middle-aged woman who nursed him takes the rifle for her sons, both of whom also died in the war. Despondent, she
stored the gun in her attic, where it stayed until 1993 when the current owner’s children found it. The gun changed
hands many times in many incidental ways. Paulsen emphasizes the quirks of fate.
The reader is given an apprehensive
sense that this sequence of events is leading to something terrible. The tension builds with such paragraphs as:
“But everything counts
in the timeline of history. Every little thing becomes absolutely vital to the future. So it was that if John Byam had not
swallowed dirty water he might have lived many more years, or he might have died in combat, or of tuberculosis – which
killed thousands – or even died on a later day that would have changed the time flow of the rifle and made its history
totally different. Just as now another slight bend of fate occurred.”
The people in this story
come and go quickly as their presence relates to the rifle; and Paulsen’s character development reflects just that.
We know just enough about personalities to understand the way they react to the presence of having the rifle in their lives.
Until the character of Richard is introduced.
THE RIFLE is divided into
four parts, entitled “The Weapon,” “The Boy,” “The Joining,” and “The Rifle.”
The second section begins with “It is necessary to know this boy.” The reader is not told why. This entire chapter
develops the character of Richard. The section ends with a page-long sentence, describing the likes, dislikes, dreams and
goals of a typical fourteen-year-old boy with his life waiting to be lived.
begins ominously with obvious foreshadowing: “It is strange that in all the time of the rifle . . . nobody, not once
in the life of the rifle, did anybody ever think to check to see if it was loaded.” The reader is drawn further into
the story, knowing that disaster is coming, but not knowing how. Then through a freakish sequence of events, the bullet is
fired from the house next door, into Richard’s house, then into his head, killing him instantly.
The last section, “The
Rifle,” is sort of an epilogue explaining in detail the consequences of this tragic incident. It ends on a menacing
note: “And in the meantime the rifle sits in the gun cabinet. Waiting.” This gives a creepy personification to
the rifle. It was made to kill, and it would continue doing so.
Although there is no information
given as to what research went into the writing of this book, Paulsen has a reputation for writing accurate historical novels.
The history is easily verified; the incredibly minute details of hand-making a rifle are more difficult. However, the description
is written with authority, and adds a feeling of authenticity.
This book could easily be
used in the classroom or home to begin a discussion of gun control. It obviously has a message and will certainly cause its
readers to contemplate the possible consequences of guns in their lives.
Gary, 1995. THE RIFLE. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company.