Hatchet: A struggle of the Body and the Mind.

Gary Paulsen. Hatchet. New York, NY: Aladdin Paperbacks, 1987.

hatchet.jpg "My name is Brian Robeson and I am thirteen years old and I am alone in the north woods of Canada." This excerpt from Gary Paulsen's book, Hatchet, is the calm realization of a thirteen-year-old boy who has found himself in a situation few teenagers ever expect to encounter. Brian Robeson is on his way to visit his father, who works in the Canadian oil fields, when the pilot of his bush plane has a heart attack, leaving Brian alone to land the plane. After surviving the crash-landing, Brian finds himself in an unfamiliar situation. He is alone with nothing but the clothes on his back and the hatchet his mother gave him as a parting gift, connected on his belt. For 54 days Brian survives in the Canadian wild, eating berries, fish, turtle eggs, and wild birds. He creates fire with the spark from his hatchet, and builds a shelter out of the resources around him. While he may have found a way to survive, it was not without trials and tribulations. Alone in the wild, Brian faces swarms of insects, wild animals, and severe storms but, most of all, he faces the turmoil of his thoughts and the secret he has carried with him regarding his parent's recent divorce.

Hatchet is an adventure story about desperate struggles for survival, however, it is also about discovering the hidden strengths in oneself. At its core, Hatchet is a coming-of-age story of a boy who must confront both physical and psychological challenges in order to grow and discover himself. Along the way, readers discover themes of hope, perseverance, and self-realization in both Brian and themselves.

From the beginning of the novel, Brian is a character many young readers can relate to. Despite the fact that he is put in a situation very few people will ever experience, Brian has also experienced something many students know about first-hand - divorce. Even getting on a plane to somewhere new, Brian's mind focuses on what it always does, "The thinking started. Always it started with a single word. Divorce" (2). No matter where Brian goes or what he is doing, he can't hide from the secret he knows that ultimately led to the divorce, and he can't help but feel somewhat responsible. In a day and age when close to 50% of marriages end in divorce, many children can relate to the struggle Brian undergoes in his mind about his role in the divorce, what it means for him, and how life could have been different.

Brian faces many challenges in his quest for survival, but his toughest challenge is in his mind. One of his biggest mental challenges is to stay positive in a seemingly hopeless situation. When he starts to get negative thoughts, Brian thinks of his English teacher who would say, "Stay positive and stay on top of things" (49). Many students have been in a situation when they feel that everything is useless and began to pity themselves, and can learn from Brian's experience and his teacher's words. Several times Brian cries to himself feeling full of self-pity, but he soon comes to the realization that "feeling sorry for yourself didn't work" (82), and that even though he was in a desperate situation, self pity and crying weren't going to change his predicament. Again, these situations are both inspirational for the reader and relate to emotions they may be feeling at their young age. It is good for students to know that they are not the only ones facing difficult situations or feeling helpless and alone. Knowing someone else, even a fictional someone else, feels the same way they do makes their situation feel a bit more manageable.

Hatchet serves as a mirror for students who see themselves in Brian, but it also serves as a window to an unknown place. Just like Brian, the reader is thrust right into a situation that is new and unknown. As the reader's imagination is triggered by this new setting and situation, the reader is drawn in to the story, learning important ideas while also being entertained. Students can take lessons away from this novel and incorporate them into their everyday life, and will be excited to do so because they feel immersed in the book. Similarly to how Brian is a changed person at the end of his adventure, the students may, at the very least, have new insights about the world they live in. They may be inspired to interact and appreciate nature a little more. Rather than pig out on sweets and snacks, they might learn to appreciate the fact that they have food on the plate at home. It's the little moments in Hatchet that add up to reveal a bigger picture. The little moments of sadness, happiness, perseverance, danger, fear and victory all add up to the idea of maturation and adapting to the world we live in.

Recommendations for Teachers
Hatchet is an ideal book for students in upper-elementary or middle school. The language is accessible, the plot is interesting, and the character is of an age that students can relate to. While it is very likely that no students have landed a plane and survived for months in the wilderness, it is likely that many of them have experienced the same emotional issues as Brian (divorce, feeling isoloated and alone, struggling with something). While the text is accessible to students and can act as a mirrorr of themselves, Hatchet can also function as a window into a setting and situation students have no experience with.

1) Draw the Scene - The setting of Hatchet is a central part of the story. It is, after all, the setting (the wild) that serves as the antagonist in many of Brian's challanges. Have students draw a picture of how they see Brian's new home on the L-shaped lake and then compare them as a class. Do they see it as a serene setting or a more desolate and threatening setting? How does their view of the lake change their opinion of the story?
2) What Would You Do? - Play a game show in which students are given scenarios and then must describe what they would do to survive. This makes the students think like the character and perhaps identify more with him.
3) Create a Journal - Have students write journal entries in Brian's character. They can choose to write about significant events such as the first time he created a fire, the run-in with the porcupine, or coming face-to-face with the pilot's corpse.
4) Imagine If... - Ask students questions such as "what if Brian wasn't rescued in the end?". This question will lead to others such as "would he survive the winter?", "what would happen to the animals he eats?", and more. Have students answer these various "Imagine if..." scenarios as if they were Gary Paulsen editing his story.

About Gary Paulsengary.jpg

Born May 17, 1939, Gary Paulsen is one of America's most popular writers for young people. Although he was never a dedicated student, Paulsen developed a passion for reading at an early age. After a librarian gave him a book to read — along with his own library card — he was hooked. He began spending hours alone in the basement of his apartment building, reading one book after another.
Running away from home at the age of 14 and traveling with a carnival, Paulsen acquired a taste for adventure. A youthful summer of rigorous chores on a farm; jobs as an engineer, construction worker, ranch hand, truck driver, and sailor; and two rounds of the 1,180-mile Alaskan dog sled race, the Iditarod; have provided ample material from which he creates his powerful stories.
Living in the remote Minnesota woods, Paulsen eventually turned to the sport of dog racing, and entered the 1983 Iditarod. In 1985, after running the Iditarod for the second time, he suffered an attack of angina and was forced to give up his dogs. "I started to focus on writing the same energies and efforts that I was using with dogs. So we're talking 18-, 19-, 20-hour days completely committed to work. Totally, viciously, obsessively committed to work, the way I'd run dogs....I still work that way, completely, all the time. I just work. I don't drink, I don't fool around, I'm just this way....The end result is there's a lot of books out there."
It is Paulsen's overwhelming belief in young people that drives him to write. His intense desire to tap deeply into the human spirit and to encourage readers to observe and care about the world around them has brought him both enormous popularity with young people and critical acclaim from the children's book community. Paulsen is a master storyteller who has written more than 175 books and some 200 articles and short stories for children and adults. He is one of the most important writers of young adult literature today and three of his novels — Hatchet, Dogsong, and The Winter Room — were Newbery Honor Books. His books frequently appear on the best books lists of the American Library Association.
Paulsen and his wife, Ruth Wright Paulsen, an artist who has illustrated several of his books, divide their time between a home in New Mexico and a boat in the Pacific.
(Picture and information courtesy of Randombooks.com)

Multimedia (Video or Audio)

Here is Gary Paulsen talking about his life as a wayward child, a dogsled racer and finally a writer. He explains how a library saved him.

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