Book Reviews

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

Inspired by his own true adventures, Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, published in 1986, is a spellbinding story of survival and transformation for young adults

Published – 1986 | Paperback – 208 pages | Genre – Young Adult

One of the most popular books of the 80s, Hatchet is a story of survival and transformation that makes for a perfect read for middle-graders (ages 10 and above). Unlike detective stories like the Hardy Boys or the fantasy world of Harry Potter that have been written for a young audience, Hatchet is a far-more blunt and brutal account of hardships faced in the wild by a young kid. 

Brian is 13-years old and on his way to spend the summers with his father in Canada. He is the sole passenger of a twin-propeller bush plane. Things begin to go awry when the pilot suffers a heart attack mid-flight and Brian is left to figure out a way to crash land safely. He happens to crash in the wilderness right by a lake, with nothing on him except the clothes on his back and a hatchet dangling from his belt that his mother had gifted him right before his departure. 

Thus begins the story of a kid who must figure out a way to survive in the wild until rescue finds him. 

Over the next fifty-four days, Brian will find himself under severe stress – emotionally and physically, as he tries to unlearn everything he already knows about living in the city among civilization and instead rely on his gut and observational skills. He must figure out how to get food, build a shelter and learn to make fire like the Stone Age man – to stay warm, to ward off curious animals and to cook meat if he can land it. 

Consumed by despair as the days pass by without any sign of help, Brian’s fear kicks in his primal instinct to survive. Alone and terrified, he learns the value of patience – of slowing down, of waiting for things to take its course, to let nature play at its own pace. He must build up his reserves of physical strength and stock up food every single day. Through continuous exploration and discovery, he must become aware of his surroundings on an extremely intimate level if he is to survive the wild. Nothing comes easy – every bit of food, every bit of fire has to be earned through physical effort and mental grit. Brian slowly realizes that nature is completely indifferent to his existence and can be both, a friend and a foe.

In time, Brian will build a cozy shelter (but be attacked by a porcupine who tries to steal his turtle eggs while he sleeps), experiment with friendly-looking berries (and get severe diarrhea), learn to make fire (after exhaustingly innumerable attempts), trap birds (nicknaming them foolbird as they just sit in the bushes ready to be trapped) and even fish (using a bow and arrow). Constantly tried and tested by nature he learns that there is nothing but madness there. The wolves and bears will let you be if they don’t find you threatening while a harmless-looking moose munching on grass might very well try to gut you to death for no apparent reason. Brian is constantly learning from his mistakes and can never let down his guard. 

What is truly amazing about this story is the personal growth that Brian goes through. Having to face adversity at an age where one is just learning the ways of adulthood is more than challenging – it is character changing. Over time, we get complacent and careless in our “city knowledge” and forget what it takes to survive when stripped of our luxuries and essentials. Hatchet seeks to push its readers into a corner and make them a tad bit uncomfortable by repeatedly making them wonder – how will I survive if I am left to fend for myself in the wild?

Gary Paulsen wrote Hatchet in just four months. He has based the character of Brian and the story on his own life experiences. As an adolescent, he spent time away from his parents in the wild where he foraged and scavenged for his own food. In 2001, he wrote Guts: The True Stories Behind ‘Hatchet’ and the Brian Books, narrating his own real-life adventures that inspired him to write Hatchet. He has done everything that Brian does – hunting with a bow, dealing with a moose attack, making two forced landings in a bush plane – and a lot more. 

Having had testing experiences in his early life, Paulsen is a champion of introducing kids to hard truths as evident in over 200 books he has published in his lifetime. He knows how youngsters think and feel and is candid in his depiction of the harsh realities of the wild. Hatchet has no real villain – the entire drama is centered around survival. In a lot of ways, this book is like a heart-felt emotional letter from an older Paulsen to his younger self, hiding out in the wild, to get away from his fighting parents. The repetitive style that Paulsen employs to say the same thing conveys Brian’s stress – that infinite loop one falls prey to when one can’t imagine a solution to a problem and feels helplessly trapped. 

This is undoubtedly a book I would hand over to every young teen I meet. 

Hatchet was the winner of the 1988 Newbery Honor Award. The movie, A Cry in the Wild, released in 1990 is based on this book . Hatchet is the first of five books in the Brian’s Saga series and is followed by The River

This post is part of our January 2020 Issue

By Sanskriti Nagar

I'm a storyteller on a journey - to connect people with places, the past with the present, the contemporary with the traditional. I'm just stepping into the shoes of an explorer, aspiring to be a globetrotter, and someday, a novelist. Follow me through my journeys, and if something does resonate with you, or you'd like me to cover a story for you, I'd love to catch up. (PS: I love coffee!)

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