Study Guide

Hatchet

by Gary Paulsen

Hatchet Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

In many ways, Hatchet manifests as a contemporary take on the Robinson Crusoe plot. Paulsen recalls an incident during his stay in the Philippines where he saw an airplane crash, with military personnel unable to save the victims; it has been speculated that these youthful memories partially influenced the plot of Hatchet. The story’s thirteen-year-old protagonist, Brian Robeson, finds himself at the mercy of the Canadian woods after the Cessna 406 taking him up to oil fields where his father works as a mechanical engineer crash lands into a lake.

While the plot focuses on the survival narrative, a conflict of Brian versus nature, a large internal conflict echoes throughout Hatchet. The entire reason Brian flies out to see his father in Canada is the result of his parent’s divorce; in flashback, the reader learns that Brian discovers his mother during an extramarital affair. That Brian retains that information as a secret, constantly reiterated throughout the story as he ponders his predicament, compels the reader to wonder how much blame he places on his mother for his situation of being stranded. Had Brian disclosed the secret to his father, the assumption is made that his father might have gained different visitation rights rather than flying out for summer visits, which in turn has caused Brian’s predicament. This inherent causality within Hatchet becomes a point of disgust and self-loathing for Brian as he discovers that perhaps he is most at blame for not speaking up when he had the opportunity.

The hatchet, itself, given to him as a parting gift from his mother, becomes a complicated symbol within the story. As Brian’s only real tool, it comes to symbolize his survival as he uses it to fashion other tools: spears, arrows, fire, and shelter. By the same token, it also comes to symbolize death through its connection to his mother and its penultimate use in Brian’s eventual escape as he hollows through the plane’s fuselage in his attempt to get to its emergency survival pack. When he comes upon it, he discovers the pilot’s remains still sitting in the cockpit. The body has been eaten away to the bare skeleton by the same fish he has been eating to survive in the wild.

In these scenarios, Brian begins to understand himself and his place within the world anew after having faced his own imminent mortality and defeated it. As nature throws what the cloistered urban Brian would have seen as impossible scenario after impossible scenario, this new Brian finds ways to adapt and survive, growing leaner and stronger by the process. Where at one point he considers using his hatchet to commit suicide after not lighting his signal fire in time to alert a passing search plane, the isolation-hardened Brian grows from berry-forager to meat-hunter and finally to confronting nature, itself, by novel’s end as one of its own inhabitants.

The novel, itself, is somewhat episodic—time for Brian exists through a series of developmental firsts: first shelter, first fire, or first meat. In this manner, Paulsen shows Brian evolving from a boy who acclimates what he knows about survival and living in the wilderness from his own culture’s eyes (most often through television shows and films) to the gradual relearning process of seeing his new world on its own terms. It is only when Brian abandons hope of returning to his old life and accepts his new world as his home that he grows to the extent that he can survive as a member of it.

Hatchet Overview

In the tradition of Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson, Hatchet is a story of individual survival against great odds. It...

(The entire section is 283 words.)

Hatchet Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1 Summary

Thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson is on his way to the rugged Canadian wilderness, where his father works in the oil fields in the far northern area bordering the tundra. Brian is the lone passenger in a Cessna 406 bushplane, which is also carrying some drilling equipment and a survival pack to be used in case of an emergency. The plane’s pilot, a taciturn man in his mid-forties, has said little to Brian since directing him to take the copilot’s seat just before takeoff in Hampton, New York.

In the beginning, Brian had been consumed with the excitement of his first trip in a single-engine plane. He had observed with interest the scenery as well as the myriad instruments and controls on the dashboard in front of him. Eventually, though, the drone of the engine and the endlessly forested terrain all around had become monotonous, and Brian had been left with time to think about the events leading up to this lonely trip.

Brian’s parents have recently divorced, and it seems that everything has happened quickly since Brian’s mother asked for the split. The courts have decreed that Brian should live with his mother during the school year and spend the summers with his father in Canada. Brian feels as if his entire world has come apart, and the pressure upon him is intensified because he is privy to a secret about his mother that he knows is the underlying cause of the breakup.

Brian looks over at the pilot, and after a while the man seems to open up a bit and acknowledges him. Learning that this is his passenger’s first ride in the copilot’s seat of a plane, he begins to explain some of the controls and instruments, and he even lets Brian take the wheel and work the pedals that steer the aircraft. At the end of the impromptu lesson, the pilot is distracted by a pain in his left shoulder. Attributing his discomfort to the aches and pains of growing old, the pilot lapses into silence again, and Brian resumes looking out...

(The entire section is 605 words.)

Chapter 2 Summary

Brian is initially paralyzed by fear in the moments after he realizes the seriousness of his situation. Although the plane is flying on its own for now, Brian knows that eventually he will have to do something, but he does not know what to do. He reaches toward the pilot, remembering vaguely about CPR, but he does not know exactly how to do it, and it is impossible to maneuver in the cramped quarters of the Cessna anyway. Brian places his hand on the pilot’s chest but can detect no heartbeat or breathing; he is almost certain that the man is dead.

The plane encounters some turbulence, and Brian feels its nose dip downward. Knowing that if it continues to fly at this angle, the plane will soon hit the trees, Brian puts his hands on the control wheel and his feet on the rudder pedals, trying to recall from his brief lesson how to get the plane back on track. After a period of trial and error, Brian manages to steady the plane, then he tries to figure out what he should do next.

Brian studies the dials on the plane’s dashboard but finds them confusing, “a jumble of numbers and lights.” He then remembers the radio. Taking the headset gingerly from the pilot’s head, he places it on his own and positions the small microphone in front of his mouth. Pressing the switch on the microphone as he had seen the pilot do in his final moments, Brian speaks into it but hears no response. Terror overtakes him, and he begins to scream over and over, “Help! Somebody help me! I’m in this plane and don’t know...don’t know....”

In the midst of his panic, a thought comes to Brian. He remembers having used a CB radio in his uncle’s truck once and recalls that he had to switch the mike off in order to hear anyone else. Releasing the switch, he hears a faint voice through the noise and static. Brian manages to communicate his situation to the speaker, who asks for his flight number and location. Frustrated because he does not...

(The entire section is 666 words.)

Chapter 3 Summary

Brian’s brain is consumed with a single thought after the engine stalls—he is going to die. As the plane goes into a very fast glide, Brian looks desperately out the windshield for a place to land, but all he sees before him are trees. Suddenly, slightly to the right of his flight path, he sees an L-shaped lake, which gives him a glimmer of hope. Brian begins to maneuver the plane tentatively. He first pulls back on the wheel to bring the nose up, but his adjustment also makes the plane slow dramatically and he is afraid the craft will stop altogether and plummet precipitously straight down onto the trees. He quickly pushes the wheel back in, and the speed of the plane increases a little bit but it continues to lose...

(The entire section is 401 words.)

Chapter 4 Summary

Brian dreams about The Secret, the memory “slicing deep into him with hate.” He had been riding his bike with his friend Terry. As they passed the Amber Mall, Brian had just happened to look over Terry’s head to see his mother sitting in a station wagon with a stranger. The stranger was a man with short blond hair and wearing a white tennis shirt. Brian’s mother had not seen him but he had clearly seen her.

Brian wakes up screaming, and for a moment he does not know where he is. Remembering the crash, he screams until his breath is gone. He tries to move but finds that he hurts everywhere. Awareness slowly dawns on him and he realizes that, amazingly, he is alive. Brian discovers that he is lying with his legs...

(The entire section is 684 words.)

Chapter 5 Summary

Brian awakens in the midafternoon with an unbelievable thirst. He looks down at the lake and sees water aplenty there, but he is not sure if it is safe to drink. Brian thinks of the pilot, strapped down in the plane at the bottom of the lake, and is momentarily repulsed. But when he cannot think of another place from which to get water, he goes down to the lake and drinks.

Although Brian had intended to allow himself only a sip or two of the life-restoring liquid, once he feels the water trickle past his parched lips and tongue, he cannot stop. He drinks until his stomach is swollen, then he staggers back up the bank and is immediately sick. Even though he throws up most of the water he has taken, Brian finds that his...

(The entire section is 689 words.)

Chapter 6 Summary

Brian remembers a time when he and his friend Terry had gone to the park and pretended they were lost in the woods. They had discussed what they would need to do to survive and concluded that building a lean-to would be one of the first things that must be done. Brain decides this is what he should do now, and he sets out to find a good place to build a shelter. Wanting to stay by the lake so he will be visible should rescuers arrive, Brian explores the stone ridge to his left. On the ridge’s north side, he discovers a “scooped-out” area in the stone under a ledge; all he will have to do is wall off part of the opening, and he will have the perfect shelter.

When he begins to gather pieces of wood to close up the...

(The entire section is 563 words.)

Chapter 7 Summary

Brian awakens to excruciating pain in his stomach; it is as if the berries he ate earlier have “exploded in the center of him,” ripping and tearing. He crawls out of his shelter onto the sand and is sick for over an hour. When he is finally empty and “drained of all strength,” he returns into his shelter but cannot go back to sleep. His mind wanders restlessly, bringing back the memory of his mother sitting in the station wagon with the strange man, kissing him passionately. The kiss has become The Secret, and Brian feels all over again the shame of seeing his mother in this compromising situation. Eventually, he drifts off to sleep again.

When Brian reawakens, the sun is streaming through the doorway and the...

(The entire section is 675 words.)

Chapter 8 Summary

Brian is awakened in the middle of the night by a low growl accompanied by a terrible smell. Although he can see nothing in the impenetrable darkness, a stench of rot permeates the shelter. Brian then hears a slithering sound near his feet. Terrified, he throws his hatchet at the source of the sound and kicks out as hard as he can. The hatchet misses its target and instead strikes the rock wall, inducing a shower of sparks; Brian’s leg is simultaneously “torn with pain.”

Screaming and backing against the wall, Brian thinks he can make out a “bulk in the darkness” moving away from him and back out through the door of the shelter. When it is clear that the creature is not going to return, Brian examines the...

(The entire section is 569 words.)

Chapter 9 Summary

To his dismay, Brian discovers that although he has the basic elements to make a fire, actually getting one started is not easy. By striking the rock wall of his shelter with his hatchet, he has no trouble making sparks, but getting these sparks to ignite is another matter. Brian tries directing the sparks onto piles of dried grass and twigs, but they only sputter there and die. Thinking he needs something finer for fuel, he shreds the twenty-dollar bill in his pocket, but that does not work either.

Brian next gathers some of the light, paper-like bark of a nearby birch tree and brings back a baseball-size wad of the material into the shelter. He again strikes the rock, eliciting a stream of sparks that fall upon the...

(The entire section is 496 words.)

Chapter 10 Summary

The fire Brian has worked so hard to make is at first so precious to him that he cannot bring himself to leave it. He sits by it throughout even the heat of the day, enjoying it and keeping it nourished. By late afternoon, he begins to plan again and goes out to gather more wood to keep the fire going throughout the night.

Brian looks back and sees the smoke from his fire curling up through the trees. He realizes that in addition to warmth, the fire has given him the ability to make a signal fire that might facilitate his rescue. He notices also that the smoke seems to keep the mosquitoes away.

As Brian settles in for the night, he thinks for the first time since the crash that “he might be getting a...

(The entire section is 487 words.)

Chapter 11 Summary

Brian is overcome by depression when he thinks about how long it is taking rescuers to find him, but he finds that if he keeps busy he is better able to maintain a healthy mental state. Fortunately, there is always plenty that must be done to ensure his comfort and survival.

Two days after his initial success building a fire, Brian digs a hole near his sleeping area in which to store his turtle eggs, adds wood to the fire, and cleans up his camp. Tidying up consists only of shaking out his windbreaker and smoothing the sand where he sleeps, but it is a routine that helps him maintain focus. Brian has decided to always have enough wood on hand for three days, which is actually a “staggering amount.” It will take all...

(The entire section is 630 words.)

Chapter 12 Summary

Brian makes a spear with a two-pronged, needle-sharp point out of a willow branch, but he cannot seem to capture any fish with it. He stands in the shallows at the edge of the lake and watches the fish swarm around his legs, but he is not fast enough to catch one. Brian concludes that he needs something to propel the spear forward, some kind of “motive force”; a bow and arrow might serve his purposes nicely.

After eating an egg and banking the fire, Brian takes his hatchet and his spear and sets off to find a piece of wood that would make a good bow. Along the way, he picks a few berries and eats them, then he is surprised to find that his stomach is full. Brian sees that his stomach is “caved in...it must have...

(The entire section is 532 words.)

Chapter 13 Summary

Brian is standing at the edge of the lake with his spear, trying to catch one of the “foolbirds,” the type he once almost stepped on. As he waits motionlessly at a spot where he knows a flock of them lives, he is suddenly overcome with a sense of danger. Brian does not yet perceive what constitutes the potential threat, but he knows his feeling is real. It has happened before that “something had come into him from outside to warn him”; Brian has never known the sense of unease that engulfs him at these times to be unfounded.

Waiting patiently for the danger to reveal itself, Brian remains unmoving, his senses acutely focused. Finally, he sees a wolf halfway up the hill, regarding him with “wide yellow eyes.”...

(The entire section is 576 words.)

Chapter 14 Summary

Small mistakes made in the city can usually be rectified, but the same mistakes made in the wilderness can quickly lead to disaster. Brian learns an important lesson early in his forced sojourn—in the forest, “food is...everything”—but the way in which he learns it almost kills him.

One night, Brian is awakened by a sound or perhaps a smell. Near the fire, completely undeterred by the smoke or by Brian himself, a skunk is digging for the buried turtle eggs. Brian at first almost smiles at the sight of the industrious little creature, but then he remembers that the eggs are his food and grabs a handful of sand and throws it at the skunk, hoping to scare it away. The skunk immediately retaliates by spraying Brian...

(The entire section is 561 words.)

Chapter 15 Summary

Although Brian keeps track of the time that has passed since the crash by making a mark each day on a stone near his shelter door, in reality he measures time in the wilderness by events, keeping a sort of mental journal. One of the pivotal happenings during his lonely sojourn is the “Day of First Meat.”

Fish are plentiful in the lake, and Brian is able to catch as much as he needs, but he craves “heavier...deeper food”; he craves meat. He knows that squirrels are plentiful in the area, and he thinks he might be able to catch a rabbit with his spear or an arrow, but the creatures that intrigue him the most are the silly fowl he has named “foolbirds.” These birds are seemingly everywhere, but their color and...

(The entire section is 630 words.)

Chapter 16 Summary

There are many other First Days that mark the time Brian has spent alone in the wilderness. There is First Arrow Day, when he discovers how to make an arrow that flies correctly by attaching feathers, and First Rabbit Day, when he finally catches a rabbit with his bow and arrow. It seems to Brian that he is always hungry, but he is confident now in his ability to get food.

One day Brian brings down a foolbird, and when he goes to the lake to wash his hands, he is attacked for no apparent reason by a huge moose. The moose, a female with no horns, hits him “like a runaway truck,” throwing him into the water and using her head to crush him into the mud. Brian’s eyes and ears are inundated with goo, and he feels as if...

(The entire section is 655 words.)

Chapter 17 Summary

Brian gets right to work restoring order after the twin disasters of the moose and the tornado. He must first rebuild his fire, and with his increased skill level, he gets one going in less than an hour. Gathering wood is more difficult because the injuries to his ribs and shoulder force him to move slowly. He manages to collect enough wood to keep the fire going for a day and a night, then he turns his attention to rebuilding his shelter.

Luck is with Brian, and he finds a large piece of his original wall nearby and still intact. He drags it back into place and secures it crudely, planning to improve upon it later. Exhausted now, Brian goes to bed at nightfall; tomorrow he will look for food and reinforce his shelter...

(The entire section is 670 words.)

Chapter 18 Summary

Brian makes the laborious trek out to the plane two more times but is unable to find a way to get in. Completely frustrated, he slams his fist against the exposed part of the aircraft and is surprised to find that the aluminum covering gives way easily under his blow. Taking his hatchet, he begins to hack through the tail of the plane, but in his excitement he becomes careless and drops the hatchet down into the water.

Enraged at his own stupidity, Brian knows that he must find a way to get his hatchet back. He understands that

without the hatchet he [has] nothing—no fire, no tools, no weapons—he [is] nothing.

Brian makes a series of desperate dives beneath...

(The entire section is 575 words.)

Chapter 19 and Epilogue Summary

In the morning, refreshed by a night of deep, dreamless sleep, Brian examines the contents of the survival pack and finds himself in possession of “unbelievable riches.” There is a soaked sleeping bag, which he hangs out to dry over his shelter roof, and cooking implements, including four pots and two frying pans. A waterproof container holds matches and two butane lighters, and there are fishing implements as well as a cap that says “CESSNA” across the front.

An item that at first puzzles Brian turns out to be .22 survival rifle, which comes in pieces and must be assembled. Brian, who has never shot a gun before, gets a “strange feeling, holding the rifle.” He senses that it somehow gives him an unfair...

(The entire section is 690 words.)