Review written by Jocelyn Koehler.
Full disclosure: I adore Hatchet. I own it, I reread it often, and I recommend it like it’s my job (and for a while, it was—I was a children’s bookseller). So all my thoughts on this book are filtered through that perspective.
The premise of Brian’s Winter is simple. What if, instead of getting rescued from the wilderness at the end of Hatchet, 13-year-old Brian Robeson was forced to continue his solo experience into a Canadian winter? Such an idea raises the stakes for Brian. It will take all his brains, learning, and ingenuity to keep on living in the face of cold, darkness, and hunger.
The most important thing to understand about Brian’s Winter is that it doesn’t stand alone from Hatchet. You can’t pick this up and expect to enjoy Brian’s story without knowing what happens in the previous book, even though the bare references are there.
The book is very short. It doesn’t even cover the whole winter, largely because once Brian figures out how to defeat his main adversaries, hunger and cold, by learning woodcraft-based skills, there’s little else to do but let him meet humans again. The story also ends rather abruptly; that’s my only real beef with the book on a structural level.
As with Hatchet, it’s a story of survival (and a fair amount of luck). Brian behaves with a maturity far beyond his years, a development forced on him by life. Brian isn’t a dreamer who wanders into the wilderness to find himself. He’s a practical boy who quite literally lands in a bad situation and makes the best of it. He is a survivor, and surviving means killing other things. He feels bad about killing, but never so much that he considers dying instead.
The book is mostly free of larger philosophical questions, other than a brief pondering of what he should give thanks for at his personal Thanksgiving feast. Descriptions of the woods and natural world are often beautiful, and Brian’s appreciation of the world he’s in feels authentic. He could easily be shown as a character who merely endures his situation (No TV! No friends! No candy! A moose ran me over!), but Paulsen instead makes him into a character who experiences his situation, immersing himself in his new home and learning as much as he can about it, not just for survival, but because he loves it. That choice makes a world of difference.
SPOILER ALERT: What you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Hunting and Killing
Brian kills several animals in this story. He has to get food to survive, so he makes his own bow and arrows to hunt rabbits, birds, and eventually deer and a moose(!). The descriptions of their deaths are sometimes graphic, and killing bothers him every time, but that doesn’t stop him. There’s also a pretty brutal description of wolves attacking a moose, which Brian witnesses at close range. The wolves take it down and start to eat it while it’s still alive. The scene is far nastier and more frightening than any of Brian’s kills, a fact that he reflects on in the text. Gentle vegetarian kids (or animal lovers) may be upset.
It’s not Eden. The whole point of this story is that the wilderness can and will kill you if you’re not prepared. Brian is not really prepared, but he’s smart enough and lucky enough to learn things quickly. For a while, Brian thinks he has an understanding with the other large animals in his woods, but later events teach him that the woods aren’t “his.” He’s just one living thing among many, no more or less entitled to life than any other thing. No one sings “Circle of Life” at any point.
I enjoyed Brian’s Winter, and would certainly recommend it to anyone who liked Hatchet and wants more of the story. If you haven’t read Hatchet, do start there. This is a very fast read, and Paulsen’s storytelling style is always solid. He’s got a message to impart, but never in a moralizing tone. Brian remains a great character who seems wonderfully real.