Gary Paulsen. Hatchet. New York, NY: Aladdin Paperbacks, 1987.
external image 0689808828.l.gif
Imagine you're on a small, private plane. You're flying over the vast wilderness of Canada. Suddenly, your pilot has a heart attack. He dies. You crash the plane into the forest near a lake. You're all alone with little more than the clothes on your back, or what's left of them. What do you do now?

This is precisely the situation that 13-year-old Brian Robeson finds himself in in Gary Paulson's classic, Hatchet. Flying on a small Cessna airplane to see his father in Canada after his parents' recent divorce, Brian finds himself stranded in the Canadian wilderness after a crash landing. His pilot is dead, he's hundreds of miles off course, and he has no idea how to survive in the unforgiving natural world.
Necessity soon forces him, however, to begin the struggle to survive. With the help of his hatchet, a gift from his mother, Brian begins to look for food and build a shelter. He learns how to live off of the land, becoming an expert fisher, hunter, and tool-maker. As he learns how to survive in world, depending only on himself and his abilities, Brian comes to terms with the dark secret behind his parents' divorce and undergoes a drastic transformation from a helpless kid into a resilient man - into a survivor.

Paulson's young adult novel is a coming-of-age story about overcoming the greatest of obstacles and searching within oneself to find peace and comfort in a world that all too rarely peaceful and comfortable.
Brian kneels down at the edge of the lake, dipping his hands into the cool water to take a drink. "It was very nearly the last act of his life," the narrator notes. "Later he would not know why he started to turn--some smell or sound. A tiny brushing sound. But something caught his ear or nose and he began to turn, and had his head half around, when he saw a brown wall of fur detach itself from the forest to his rear and come down on him like a runaway truck." As Brian wrestles with nature, literally at times, his struggle transcends the narrative and speaks to the rites of passage all adolescents must traverse.

At the beginning of Brian’s life post-plane crash, his mind is set towards futility. One can almost taste his hopelessness and despair from the pages of the book. He has the very mindset that a large percentage of city-raised kids would have if they were thrust into the wilderness with nothing but a hatchet, a few coins in their pocket and the clothes on their back.

Continued reading of the story highlights the fact that Brian has changed. Even he realized that he became a different person as he spent his days and nights sleeping in a makeshift lean-to resting against a rock face. Not only has he changed in his ability to survive, but he has also let go of his misery because he realized that though he may never get back home, he could certainly continue to live. So we see this transformation of a city kid with a “never-gonna-get-home” attitude to a fairly competent boy of the wild. "Patience, he thought. So much of this was patience--waiting and thinking and doing things right. So much of all this, so much of all living was patience and thinking." Brian's transformation is profound in that all his growth is internal; in the vast wilderness of Canada, he alone must grope and muscle his way into a world of manhood that attempts to defy him at every turn. All his trials in the wilderness teach Brian, and the young readers of Hatchet, to be positive, patient, and resilient in the face of overwhelming odds, and that though initiation into adulthood can be violent and unforgiving, it is not insurmountable.

Using this story in class is important because Brian has to deal with the divorce of his parents. Since divorce is becoming more and more common in the United States, many students have to cope with the splitting of their parents and, effectively, their lives. Many adolescents harbor a fractured sense of identity in the wake of their parents' divorce. Indeed, identity is at the heart of Hatchet, where Brian must learn to strengthen the fabric of his own character before coming to terms with the world around him. Hatchet teaches adolescents how overcoming loss and separation is a matter of personal growth, strength, and fortitude, and how to better cope with adult concepts like divorce.
Another reason to use this book in the classroom is the excitement factor - boys will very much enjoy this adventure story. This isn’t to say that girls won’t enjoy it, but the whole survival story will really draw boys in; Coupled with the fact that teachers are finding it hard to interest boys in reading more so than girls, this is a great jumping off point.
From the start of the pilot's heart attack and throughout the rest of the story Brian is faced with many choices in terms of his survival. He has to be creative to find different ways to survive, whether it be building a shelter, spear-fishing, or landing a plane. This is a good starting point for creative writing activities as the student can be faced with a similar scenario and write their own survival techniques.


paulsen_pic.gifGary Paulsen, born on May 17, 1939, is probably one of the most popular young adult writers in America. He is a masterful writer seeing as how he has written over 175 books. Even more impressive, he has published somewhere around the number of 200 articles/short stories which captivate both young adults and adults alike.

Paulsen, from a young age has lived a rather exciting life. At the age of 14, he ran away from home and joined up with a traveling carnival. From there, in his youth he worked on a farm, became a ranch hand, dabbled in construction and engineering, a truck driver, and a sailor. However, most impressive off all, he competed in the Iditarod twice!

One day it stuck him that he wanted to be a writer. He quit his job as a satellite tech and went to Hollywood where he was a magazine proofreader. After a year or so, Paulsen picked up and left sunny California for the remote woodlands of Minnesota where he rented a cabin on a lake. This interesting Henry David Thoreau-like action resulted in production and fine tuning of a novel.

A few of his best known young adult novels are:
Brian’s Winter
Harris and Me

It seems that part of Gary Paulsen's ability to write such an intense survival story came from his own experiences in life. This video is one of three in which he talks about his life. He was a kid who basically lived in the streets, delivering newspapers and taking tips from bars simply to survive. Only after he found refuge in the local library - where he began reading books given to him by the librarian - was he was 'saved' and began his new life with words.

  • Wilderness Survival - A one-stop shop for surviving in the great outdoors. Information on finding food, building shelters, useful tools to carry, and environment specific survival techniques. Includes a Survival Quiz and a survival discussion board.
  • Useful Wild Plants Of The United States And Canada - Complete text with detailed information on North American plants. Includes descriptions and illustrations of various plants and describes their nutritional, medicinal, various other possible uses. Also includes information on plants to avoid (poisonous).
  • Education World - A myriad of ideas to incorporate into any lesson plan for teaching this story.
  • Learn NC - Delve deeper into the world of Hatchet by using these ideas to examine Paulsen's language and vivid imagery instead of the actual content of the story.
  • Coping with Divorce - A source of information on how kids react to divorce, and how to help.
  • Build a Shelter in the Wilderness - An informational site on how to build a sufficient wilderness shelter.
  • Canadian Wilderness Hatchet - Finding credibility in Hatchet.
  • Flight Training- Could have saved Brian from a "whole lot of trouble."
  • Gary Paulsen - Additional information about the author.
  • Cast Away This is a link to the site for the movie “Cast Away” in which Tom Hanks starred. There are very distinct similarities between it and Hatchet.
  • Novel Descriptions – This site contains a more in-depth description of Paulsen’s novels. This is a great resource for young adults and adults alike looking for another good read

--Eli Barsy
--Mike Wise
--Brad Hendershot
--Griffin Cobean
-- Eric Owen