Donn Fendler’s Long Trail
A classic Maine story of a boy’s survival in the wild gets a graphic makeover.
- By: Andrew Vietze
Excerpted from Lost Trail by Donn Fendler and Lynn Plourde, illustrated by Ben Bishop, Down East Books, Camden, Maine; 72 pages; $14.95
How do you improve upon a classic? It would be hard to top Donn Fendler’s first book, Lost on a Mountain in Maine, the true story of a twelve-year-old boy’s nine-day ordeal in the wild forests of the Katahdin region in 1939. In print for decades, it has sold thousands upon thousands of copies, become required reading for the state’s middle schoolers, and kept its author on the road for the past twenty years, telling his tale to captivated audiences across New England. Lost on a Mountain in Maine has made Donn Fendler a household name across the state.
So what do you do for an encore?
If you’re Donn Fendler, you tell the story again — only for a new audience. You tell it with pages and pages of illustrations that place the readers right on the trail beside you, in a cutting-edge format that has taken over the world of children’s (and adult) literature — the graphic novel. Though it seems an unlikely pairing — one of the oldest and most beloved Maine stories, about the deep woods of the 1930s, told as a long-form comic book — Lost Trail is aimed at attracting the interest of a whole new generation of readers.
“We thought it would be a great way to get the attention of fourth and fifth graders,” says Fendler about what drew him to the project. “Kids are big on comic books.”
Adults, too. In 2009 the total U.S. market for graphic novels was $370 million, with many of the best sellers, like Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series and Art Spiegelman’s Maus, aimed squarely at mature readers.
Just as he did for his original book, Fendler, now in his eighties, teamed with a writer to tell his story. In this case, children’s book author Lynn Plourde, who herself has written a shelfful of fine Maine titles. The Winthrop writer had the painstaking task of translating Fendler’s words into storyboards. As a long-time friend of Fendler’s and a great fan of the original, she found it a bit daunting. “It is a Maine classic,” she says, “and it was important to me to honor that.”
To that end, she spent weeks interviewing Fendler and researching the early years of Baxter State Park, where he was lost as a boy seventy-two years ago. Because graphic novels are dependent upon dialogue, she had to urge him to remember how he had felt and what he might have said aloud during his ordeal. Plourde says it wasn’t difficult to get Donn Fendler to talk: “He’s such a great storyteller.”
Rather than try to simply adapt Lost on a Mountain in Maine to the graphic-novel format, the pair decided to include parts of the story that never got told in the original. Instead of opening on top of Katahdin, as the 1939 book does, Lost Trail starts with Fendler and his brothers and friends at their camp in Newport, planning their adventure, giving readers new insights into the origins of the famous tale.
“We tell more of the story before he got lost, and what happened after,” explains Plourde. “And we go into a lot of what was happening in the rescue effort, using newspaper clippings.”
The story was sent along to Portland illustrator Ben Bishop, who has drawn several graphic novels, and he worked up the action-packed, black-and-white drawings that bring the story to life. The original book had sporadic photographs. This one is illustrated by Ben Bishop throughout and written in a fast-paced style that grabs the reader and compels them along.
Plourde thinks Lost Trail will resonate with today’s kids just as Lost on a Mountain in Maine has with generations of Mainers. “The graphic novel format has such a sense of immediacy, with the pictures and dialogue,” she says. “You feel like you’re right there.”
And the story itself simply begs to be told again. A young boy endures more than a week alone in the dense North Woods, fighting off the cold and the bugs, staring down bears, and simply trying to stay alive.
“What happened to Donn, if it happened now, he would be on the Today show tomorrow,” says Plourde. “It’s really a miracle that he survived. I was sitting there typing at the end of the book and I was crying — he could easily have not made it. If he was unable to force himself to get up that one last time. . . . ”
As for Fendler, he’s excited about the possibilities of a graphic novel. Lost on a Mountain in Maine has kept pace with the times — it’s become an audio book, it has its own Web site and a Facebook page — and an illustrated version is the next logical step. Though he wasn’t familiar with graphic novels going into the project, he understands their appeal now. It’s been a novel experience for the author, who has told his story hundreds of times to schoolgroups across the state, to look at it in a new light, and to try to remember what it was like to be twelve again and hopelessly lost.
“Thinking back as a senior, you look at it a lot different. “Sometimes I wonder why I did what I did.”
- By: Andrew Vietze