Book Review: “The Gutsy Girl,” By Caroline Paul

March 29, 2017

The Gutsy Girl

Early in the book The Gutsy Girl, the author, San Francisco firefighter Caroline Paul, recounts how as a teenager she decided to set a world record. The only problem was, she wasn’t very good at anything in particular. She wasn’t the strongest, the fastest, or the most skilled. But she realized she did have a plentiful supply of something that could lead to a record: determination. And what could possibly require more determination than the simple act of crawling? Anyone can crawl a long distance she figured, as long as they have deep reserves of determination. Soon we find her circling the school track, in the rain, on her hands and knees, bleeding and cold. The day presses on, a friend drops out, the sky grows dark, and there she is, still crawling. In the dark. Let’s just say no records were set that day. But her hilarious tale begins what turns out to be an inspiring book for dreamers of all ages. Her message is clear: failure is an option. But it is the act of setting sail that matters.

This is a guidebook for any young person itching to head out on a life full of adventure, with sections full of journal activities, and instruction on practical outdoor skills. With the audacity and humor of Pippi Longstocking, the mischievousness of Huck Finn, along with a healthy sprinkling of wanderlust, author Caroline Paul’s real-life escapades are enough to inspire anyone of any age to head out the door on their next adventure. Currently a firefighter for the San Francisco Fire Department, Paul recounts over and over how she challenged her fears to start living a life full of adventure and misadventure. More than just a simple recounting of grand accomplishments, she frames her stories to serve as an inspiration to young people, and particularly young girls.

Paul starts her tale by recounting how at a young age she attempted to build a raft out of milk cartons and float the rapids of her hometown river. The attempt failed gloriously. Like her later crawling escapade, the story shows the determination of a young woman who is full of determination to live a life less ordinary, to forge her own path, to stop caring what others thought and just set sail.

From an early age, we discover that the adventures and mishaps she writes about didn’t just happen to her. She went out there and sought out the experiences and put herself in the middle of the storm of adventure. At one point she decides to become an Olympian. After a brief period of training, she somehow gets herself invited onto the US Luge team. Instead of waiting for life to simply happen to her, she pushes herself out into the middle of the current of life and either sinks or swims. As we follow her through later adventures as a climber, kayaker, paraglider, and firefighter, the message remains clear: toss off the reins holding you back, leap forward into your next adventure, live your life!

The book’s primary message of overcoming fears and striking out on a life of adventure is geared towards pre-teen girls, but her exciting and funny tales of misadventure and even failure make for a great read, and offer up inspiration to just about anybody. Mixed in with her personal adventure tales are a healthy dose of practical outdoor skills such as tying knots, using the sun as a compass, and the ten outdoor survival essentials. The book is also part journal, and encourages readers to write about their dreams, make lists of goals, and to document their mindset and what is holding them back from achieving their dreams.

As I turned the pages of this sturdy little book, I couldn’t help but hear a little Mark Twain in her voice, and I recalled a quote of his that has inspired me and countless others to do what you are afraid to do: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor.”

Gutsy Girl is for dreamers. It’s the kind of book that I want my 13 year old daughter Tasha to read, so as she sits in her bed at night she can dream of navigating raging rapids, climbing adventures in Peru, and careening down an icy track toward unforeseen dreams.

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Ethan Hipple

Along with Kim Foley MacKinnon, Ethan Hipple writes AMC's Great Kids, Great Outdoors blog. He fell in love with the outdoors as a teenager, when he worked on a Student Conservation Association (SCA) trail crew. He has directed the New Hampshire Conservation Corps and is currently the Parks Director for Portland, Me., where he lives with his wife, Sarah, and their two kids. His latest book for AMC is Outdoors with Kids Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, cowritten with Yemaya St. Clair.