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A novel that uncovers the value of self-reliance

The Man Who Lived Alone, by Donald Hall. Illustrated by Mary Azarian. Boston: David R. Godine. 35 pp. $11.95. In the tradition of such classics as ``Robinson Crusoe'' and ``Walden,'' this book for young readers testifies to the value of self-reliance and the strength that generates from noble character.

While the main character is an ``eccentric'' who consciously chooses to live alone, he lives a life that has, in fact, a very loving and giving relation to others, and he leaves all those he meets with a much richer life for having known him.

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We first meet the man in his middle years in a one-room cabin. He collects natural and man-made objects for reasons of beauty and utility -- sometimes both.

The room is full of things he has retrieved from certain destruction: a treasury of old nails, thousands of them, straightened out and made ready for use; walls covered with old clocks, which he has slowly gotten to tick anew with their own individual voices; wasp's nests hung on old railroad spikes around the border of his ceiling.

We gradually come to understand that this man very plausibly works for the fun of it -- or to help others; that during his rich working life he's learned to do just about everything that could possibly contribute to his own worth, though this is not his conscious intent. He can ``shoe a horse, make a pitchfork, build a whole shotgun, make a house, a road, or a wall.''

At the age of six, having been reared by a father made worthless, in a sense, by a disposition that was ``stingy, lazy, and mean,'' he went to live with his cousins and their little girl Nan. It's here that he learned the power of love to fortify himself against all odds and hardships.

Now it is just here, in the meaning the story conveys, that the poetic storytelling of Donald Hall (an exceptionally brilliant theorist on writing, and poet laureate of New Hampshire) is epitomized. There is indeed a wealth of high ideals embodied in the story. But they're shown, not dictated; they emerge from the living texture of the story itself and are therefore all the more moving and inspiring.

The man in the story is not overtly romanticized. But the feeling of enduring affection and even reverence we have for him brings forth the natural ``romance'' of a writer's straightforward feeling for something genuinely worth feeling for. The writing, per se, epitomizes Hall's own emphasis on ``writing to discover'' (see the first chapter of his earlier work, ``Writing Well''). It's a veritable study in perfect sincerity and simplicity, expressing a sort of refined spontaneity.

About this hermitlike man so full of practical worth that his life becomes a kind of grace, we read that he ``took branches from seven different apple trees and grafted them on to one strong trunk so that one tree grew seven kinds of apples.''

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As an artist of life he collected his rich experiences and pulled them all together into ``one strong trunk'' of individualism, one richly rooted in meaning and purposeful existence. His identity, like the rugged medium of the book's handsome woodcut illustrations, is unimposingly bold, decisive, and eminently valuable. The story about him may be soberly regarded as a major contribution to the very best children's literature.

Darian J. Scott is an elementary school teacher.

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