There are few books that are written for a young audience that can hold an adult’s attention. Most books for young people tend to be trite, formulaic, and fail to challenge the reader in any sort of way. The works of Gary Paulsen are notable exceptions, none more so than his classic Hatchet.
Hatchet tells the story of 13-year-old Brian Robeson’s survival in the woods of northern Canada following a plane crash. Brian is a smart young man, raised in an unnamed city, with no outdoor experience. His parents divorce after his mother begins an affair with another man and his father goes to the oil fields of Canada to test a new drill bit he’s designed. Brian is sent to Canada for a summer to spend it with his father. However, the pilot of the small plane has a heart attack and crashes en route. Brian suddenly finds himself alone in the woods with a hatchet as his only tool.
Brian is forced to rely on his wits alone to survive. He has no supplies, the clothes on his back, and his hatchet. Things begin hard enough for Brian. He suffers a mild concussion in the crash and spends several days drifting in and out of consciousness. He also manages to give himself food poisoning by eating some bad berries. He suffers from a severe lack of food early on. He is forced to under go the same evolutionary steps his ancestors underwent to survive. He finds shelter in a cave, which he improves by building a small wall. He discovers he can make fire with his hatchet by throwing it at a porcupine. He makes crude tools to catch fish. With this knowledge Brian finds he can survive almost indefinitely.
Brian’s biggest problem, however is not physical survival, but mental survival. He is consumed with bitterness and resentment over his parent’s divorce. Brian struggles with the emotional isolation of being a child of divorce in addition to the emotional isolation of being in the wilderness. As he learns to survive, Brian learns to deal with his emotions. He learns that feeling sorry for himself is a waste of time and energy. As this lesson is repeated, he grows from a scared boy into a tough man who can handle whatever challenges that come his way. In this sense, Hatchet is more than just a tale of wilderness survival or coming of age story. It is the story of emotional survival in the face of absolute hardship. Brian manages to maintain his humanity throughout his ordeal. Rather than destroy the world around him and reverting to savagery, as seen in Lord of the Flies, Brian integrates himself into nature. Most telling is when Brian recovers a survival pack from the wreckage of the plane and finds a .22 rifle, fishing line, lures, and matches in it. He feels conflicted about these finds and ends up setting them aside thus forsaking the absolute power they offer.
Paulsen’s style is complex. He writes with a mature quality often found in novels targeted to an older audience. He challenge’s the reader’s ability and notions. As with most of his books, adult readers of Hatchet find it harder reading than most adult novels. He easily puts many popular adult novelists to shame. Paulsen’s ability to use imagery and drive his story through pure narrative power, as opposed to dialog, places him amongst the most talented writers of the 20th century.
Hatchet is a great read for adults and teenagers alike. I have read it three times and it never ceases to lose its power and suspense.