Review written by Jocelyn Koehler.
Hatchet is one of my favorite-est “boy books” (more on that below). It freaks me out to think that it’s 25 years old! Maybe that’s partly because it seems like it should be ageless. The core of the story is a boy living alone in the woods, and no amount of technology or shift in the zeitgeist is going to mess with that (well…until we all have surgical GPS and/or Google Glasseyes, or there are no more forests left). However, after a recent rereading, I’m happy to report that the story is still resonant.
For those who aren’t familiar with the plot, the story centers on 13-year-old Brian Robeson, who is flying up in a bushplane to stay with his father in the Canadian oil fields for the summer. But the pilot suffers a fatal heart attack, forcing Brian to try to land the plane himself. He manages to crash land the plane into a lake, and get out before the thing is submerged. However, he’s now stuck in the Canadian wilderness with no preparation, no food, and no way to contact anyone. All he has is a hatchet given to him by his mother.
The process of Brian moving from shock to recovery to survival to something like thriving feels so natural that it’s easy to forget that Paulsen queued up a lot of things to fall our boy’s way. True, he’s stranded and scared. But he’s in a relatively safe location, has clean, fresh water, finds a rock shelter, and finds food soon enough. While none of these elements feel too good to be true, the end result is sort of a “best treehouse ever” experience for the reader…for Brian, there are many painful lessons and near-misses. He crawls out of the crash 20 pages in; it takes nearly to page 100 before he manages to start a fire. We see him learn to gather berries, how to hunt and kill birds, how to lure fish to where he can catch them, and such. The titular hatchet is vital for a lot of these skills, and it becomes a sort of totem and centering object for Brian, the civilizing technology that lets him survive.
Importantly, Brian isn’t an outdoorsy kid in the beginning, which is key, since it allows any reader to identify with his struggles. As he learns, he grows aware of his surroundings, considers his actions far more carefully, and develops a slower, reflective mind. Basically, he grows up. It would be tempting to think the whole story is just a metaphor for fitting into society, except that it is so clearly a real survival scenario involving real problems that a person might face.
The ending comes quickly. Brian gets a chance to return to the plane, which he knows contains a survival pack filled with useful stuff. An emergency transmitter is part of the pack, and he turns it on without knowing it. A plane shows up unexpectedly, allowing Brian (who had long stopped expecting rescue) a way to get back home. He returns to the world, forever changed by his experience. And he keeps the hatchet.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Brian’s parents got divorced shortly before the beginning of the book. Brian (via an accidental eavesdropping) knows that his mother wanted the divorce because she was having an affair. He calls his knowledge The Secret, and it is a major source of pain for him. While the issue of divorce and fidelity is only in the background, it never quite leaves the story. Brian remembers it and considers it at points throughout the book.
There are two kinds of death in this book (well, three). First, the sudden death of the pilot at the beginning is shocking, both to Brian and the reader. The dead pilot goes down into the lake, and much later, when Brian swims to the plane to get the survival pack, he sees the partially decayed (and fish eaten) body. It’s kind of gross, in the way that I could picture all too well, and some kids might get that image blazed on their brains.
The other type of death is the hunting that Brian learns to do. He kills and eats birds and fish. None of it is especially brutal (the sequel, Brian’s Winter, is way more hunt-heavy), but the killing is real, and Paulsen doesn’t edit out the ick factor.
The third kind of death is the ever present threat of his own demise. Brian knows how tenuous his situation is. A broken bone, a fall, the wrong berry…any of those problems could quickly prove the end of him. Understandably, he thinks about the possibility of his death frequently. In one chapter, he gets horribly depressed after realizing that all rescue attempts are likely over, and grows so troubled that he cuts his wrist with the hatchet in an attempt to kill himself. The scene is dark but powerful—though he recovers from his depression fairly quickly, and resumes his determination to not give up.
I recommend Hatchet to the point that most people tell me to shut up. I can offer it to both boys and girls, which is (sadly) not something that one can do for all really great books. (Girls are usually far more willing to read “boyish” topics than the other way round.) Obviously, both the subject and the protagonist make this an appealing book for boys, but the odd thing is that Brian is actually almost genderless. You could swap out all the pronouns and change the name to Brittany, and absolutely nothing in the story would have to be altered. I think girls twig to that right away, and I’ve heard many girls say they enjoyed Hatchet a lot. Any kid who has an interest in survival stories, outdoorsy stuff, or fantasies of independence (and haven’t we all been there as a kid?) will dive right into this book. And if they like it, there are more books following it, each dealing with themes of independence, survival, and not getting killed by moose.
Newbery Honor book