“LOST TRAIL: NINE DAYS ALONE IN THE WILDERNESS,” by Donn Fendler with Lynn Plourde and illustrated by Ben Bishop, November 2011, Down East Books, 72 pages, paperback graphic novel, $14.95.
One Maine miracle, after more than 70 years, still enchants wide-eyed children. It’s the story of Donn Fendler, the boy who survived nine days lost in the Maine wilderness in 1939. Now white-haired, he visit schools across the state to tell his story, a compelling message of hope born from a near-tragedy. And with a new graphic novel, “Lost Trail: Nine Days Alone in the Wilderness,” people can trace his steps through illustration for the first time.
“Maine will always be my home in my heart,” Fendler, 85, said during a recent phone interview. “It’s everything to me. And what little I can do, I do. But I owe Maine for everything they did for me way back in ’39 with my folks. I owe Maine, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay it.”
Fendler has already put his experience into words once. The classic chapter book “Lost on a Mountain in Maine,” by Fendler with Joseph Egan in 1939, has long been a staple of fourth-grade education in many Maine schools.
For the illustrated rendition of the story, Fendler teamed up with Lynn Plourde, a Winthrop author of more than 25 picture books.
“We talked about doing a different version of his story for a while,” said Plourde, who befriended Fendler at book events. “‘Lost on a Mountain in Maine’ is public domain. He never made any money off it. So I kept telling him, Donn, you need a book. It’s your story.”
Together, they worked his memories into text for a picture book. After reviewing the manuscript, Down East Books threw an idea back at them – what about a graphic novel? They already had the perfect artist for the job: young Portland illustrator Ben Bishop, who prefers reality-based stories rather than super hero sagas.
Fendler and Plourde embraced the idea.
“Ben Bishop just brought the book to life,” said Fendler. “He did a wonderful job, and it stays very close to the original story. … It was very important to me, the accuracy. I think it was about as accurate as we can get it.”
For those who don’t know the story, Fendler was lost while hiking Mount Katahdin, Maine’s loftiest mountain, with his family and friends. In a storm, he lost his bearings near the summit. His disappearance quickly became national news as hundreds of searchers volunteered their time to scour Baxter State Park looking for the boy. Nine days later, when the hope of finding Fendler alive had all but been extinguished, Fendler — starving, shoeless, and covered in insect bites — stumbled upon a hunting camp 35 miles from the place he’d gone missing.
“There were a lot of revisions,” said Bishop. “When you’re reading someone’s story and you sit down to draw it, you have your own ideas. You aren’t changing things, but it’s like when you’re reading a book and you envision how people look and stuff like that. Most of the time, my guesses were good, and [Fendler] was happy with them. … But to Donn, it was like, this has to be real. This is how it happened.”
The original book, “Lost on a Mountain in Maine,” leaves a few questions unanswered: Why did he climb the mountain in the first place? What happened to Fendler after he came out of the woods?
“It was important in this book to have more information than ‘Lost on a Mountain in Maine,’” said Plourde.
The novel starts at Fendler’s family camp in Newport and follows them to Baxter State Park, where they initially planned to go fishing. The graphic novel reveals more about the search efforts, including clips from the Bangor Daily News. And at the end of the novel is a summary of Fendler’s life, thus far.
The simple language paired with detailed illustrations is readable for younger children. Yet the appeal of graphic novels covers a wide age range, including teens and adults.
“The challenge was that Donn doesn’t remember what was said 72 years ago, but because of the graphic novel, you have to show the conversation between him and his family,” said Plourde. “And when he was lost, we had to write what was going through his mind. … It was tricky because it was like a script.”
Fendler is a good talker, Plourde said. She recorded their conversations and finessed the story into a workable format. Then, they went over it line by line. He wasn’t shy about correcting details.
“It would trigger memories of things that maybe he didn’t say the first time around,” said Plourde.
Final drafts went to Bishop, who relished the challenge of depicting the emotion of those nine days, the loving relationship between Fendler and his family, and the mood of the Maine wilderness. “Lost Trail” is his first non-self-published graphic novel. (He self-published a 300-page graphic novel “Nathan the Caveman.”)
“It was definitely fun, and I’m grateful for it,” said Bishop. “I’m excited. After doing self-publishing for so long, obviously this was the end goal — getting someone to notice my work.”
“This book is for Maine, although we hope that it goes national eventually,” said Fendler, who lives in Tennessee but for the past 21 years has spent May through November at his home in Newport.
Fendler has had a busy year. This summer he was interviewed for the video documentary “Finding Donn Fendler: Lost on a Mountain in Maine, 72 Years Later,” by filmmakers Ryan Cook of Waterville and Derek Desmond of New Hampshire. Proceeds from the documentary are going toward the making of a narrative feature film, which Fendler fully supports.
Through December, his schedule is filled with presentations and book signings with Plourde and Bishop. The book event is at Bagel Central in Bangor at 11 a.m. Saturday, sponsored by The Briar Patch.
Though Fendler has told his story hundreds of times, he still enjoys sharing the experience and meeting people. It was his father who first encouraged him to talk about his story at churches, Boy Scout meetings and schools.
“I do it now to show kids what faith and determination can do,” he said.
Purchase “Lost Trail: Nine Days Alone in the Wilderness” at your local bookstore or at downeast.com. For information on book events, visit downeast.com/bookevents. Clips of the documentary “Finding Donn Fendler: Lost on a Mountain in Maine, 72 Years Later” can be previewed and purchased at donnfendlerfilm.com.