Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
Hatchet is a story that describes a young boy’s adventure in the wilderness, where he learns to be self-sufficient and emotionally secure and to cherish life and all that comes with it, both good and bad. When Brian Robeson finds himself alone in the wilderness, his physical challenges parallel the emotional challenges with which he has been dealing since his parents’ divorce. A steel hatchet with a rubber handgrip worn on his belt becomes his only tool for survival; it symbolizes the strength and maturity that will grow within Brian.
The realistic, omniscient narration begins with Brian’s mother giving him the hatchet and a leather sheath for his belt on the way to the airport. At first, he thinks of the hatchet as “hokey,” but he places it on his belt in order to please his mother. Brian then boards a Cessna 406 bushplane to visit his father for the summer. His father has been working in the Canadian oil fields, and Brian is excited by the thought of being with him again. Once the plane is aloft, however, the pilot has a heart attack. Brian attempts to fly the plane but crashes it into a remote Canadian lake. Dragging himself from the cockpit and swimming to shore, Brian begins to comprehend his situation: He is alone, cold, and wet, without any supplies, without any adults to help him, and without the faintest idea of where he is or what he is supposed to do. All that he has is the hatchet. After the first miserable night near the...
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Two settings predominate: the sky and the wilderness. The first three chapters occur as the plane is airborne; the remaining seventeen take place in the wilderness around the L-shaped lake where the plane crashes. Both landscapes are vast stages that overwhelm the presence of one small human being. Both landscapes are beautiful to the observer yet dangerous to someone unprepared or untrained.
The wilderness is neither a garden nor a wasteland. Nature will not provide Brian with sustenance free of labor, but neither will it make impossible his search for food and shelter. The natural landscape is a storehouse of food and tools waiting to be discovered and unlocked. The lake is lovely to look at and abounds with aquatic life. It is surrounded by dense green forest that covers hilly terrain; it teems with a variety of birds and animals. Paulsen's wilderness is a realistic one filled with both the beauty of a sunset tinting lake waters golden and the agony of relentless swarms of hungry mosquitos.
One rocky ledge at lake side makes a natural lookout tower and provides shelter. This ledge becomes Brian's home, where a simple lean-to can protect him against most of the elements. Here he discovers and nurtures fire. Here he stows his slowly accumulating inventory of food, tools, and supplies. Here he sleeps and wrestles with dreams of danger, survival, and the Secret.
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Paulsen employs the archetypal situation of romantic fiction: place an individual alone in a vast natural landscape in order to study his character. Because the settings of sky (experienced from a small plane) and wilderness (experienced without camping gear or a Winnebago) are not familiar to most contemporary readers, Paulsen is careful to record the physical sensations of the natural world—its sounds, sights, smell, tastes, and feel.
Three stylistic devices make the narrative move quickly. Paulsen frequently uses elliptical sentences and sentence fragments to record Brian's impressions and thoughts. Numerous single sentence paragraphs—even single word paragraphs—set a fast pace for readers and emphasize dramatic moments in the plot or important insights by Brian. Finally, Paulsen often uses repetition of a key word or phrase to linger momentarily and intensify an impression. Shortened and repetitive expressions often express Brian's "short thoughts," the unpleasant memories or images (like that of the pilot's body in the lake) which he must repress in order to cope.
Thus, Paulsen concentrates on Brian as the central intelligence through whose ideas, reactions, fears, hopes, and musings the reader can sense as well as understand the experience. In times of inactivity Brian is a character intensely wrapped up in himself. In moments of crisis he becomes dislocated. Sometimes he grows detached and seems to observe himself from a distance....
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Brian's physical ordeal is realistically described. He experiences injury, fright, and danger. He witnesses the death of the pilot. He is almost killed several times. He learns to eat foods that normally would disgust him. Paulsen does not write in a gratuitously gruesome detail about these matters, but he does not shy away from mentioning the hard, unpleasant truths of surviving without the amenities and protections of civilized life.
Brian's emotional ordeal is also realistically described. The thought of his parents' recent divorce haunts him and evokes conflicting feelings in him. He is alternately angry and confused; he sometimes judges them harshly and blames them for beginning the chain of events that led him to being lost. Brian's awareness of the Secret, his mother's relationship with the "blond hair man," causes him special grief. The fact that he witnessed his mother and lover in an embrace initiates him into a knowledge of adult sexuality that he ideally ought not have to bear at his age.
Paulsen's depiction of Brian's emotional struggle is sympathetic rather than sensational. The reader feels the poignancy of Brian's too rapid transition from boyhood to manhood. The physical ordeal and emotional ordeal are parallel struggles for Brian. Without both, the novel would be less compelling and less insightful about a youth's coming-of-age in contemporary society.
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Topics for Discussion
1. Is the simple title effective at stimulating interest and identifying the central theme?
2. Brian's invents names for things that are unfamiliar to him: "gut cherries," "spearwood," "foolbirds." How does he form these names? Do people generally name things in this way?
3. How do Brian's dreams help him survive? What other sources of inspiration does he have?
4. Why is fire referred to as "a friend and a guard"?
5. Does Brian's attitude or feelings about his parents change during his ordeal?
6. Consider Brian's interaction with animals like the bear, porcupine, wolves, and moose. Is the law of Nature the grim reality of kill or be killed, eat or be eaten?
7. The fatal flight is Brian's first trip in an airplane. How does Paulsen make credible Brian's ability to control the aircraft?
8. The climax of the novel builds upon three ordeals: the moose attack, the tornado, and the dive to the sunken airplane. Which is most difficult for Brian?
9. Which phrase best describes the "new Brian" who emerges from the ordeal: a Brian with greater self-respect, or Brian with greater self-esteem? A Brian with greater self-reliance?
10. Brian is never able to tell his father of the Secret. Why? Does this failure hint that once back in his familiar world, the "old Brian" will replace the "new Brian"?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Read Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. Compare Robinson and Brian in one or more of the following ways:
a. their reactions to the environments that isolate them;
b. their ingenuity in learning to use resources at hand; and
c. their spiritual struggles.
2. The epilogue reports that journalists were intensely interested in Brian's experience after his return. Write a feature story about Brian for your local newspaper or an adolescent magazine like Boy's Life.
3. The search for Brian ends after a month because he is believed dead. Imagine you are his mother or father and keep a diary of your reactions during the search.
4. Read an encyclopedia entry, a magazine article, or a government document on wilderness survival. How do Brian's reactions and efforts compare with the advice of professionals?
5. Paulsen has said that "Achievements are nothing, but the journey is everything." Apply this principle to Brian's experience.
6. Read The River which is the sequel to Hatchet. Report on the differences between and similarities of Brian's next adventure and Hatchet.
7. Once Brian retrieves the transmitter from the sunken plane, his rescue happens quickly and the novel ends soon after. Look up the term "deus ex machina" in a literary dictionary or encyclopedia. Is the device of the transmitter an example of a "deus ex machina"?...
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American School Publishers produced a videocassette version of Hatchet in 1990. Producer/director Cynthia Cowens's version uses a script employing Paulsen's original language but heavily edits the story line; it is about 10% of the original. It is narrated by an adult male voice, but an adolescent male recites Brian's words and thoughts. Visuals are provided by still pictures by Frank Mayo whose vivid oil colors capture the dramatic, intense spirit of Brian's struggle to survive. Cowens's version keeps all the essential elements of the original, although it plays down Brian's anguish over his parents' divorce and the Secret.
In 1991, Paulsen wrote a sequel to Hatchet. Prompted by popular demand ("I received literally thousand of letters from readers, interested in Brian . . .") and personal involvement ("my personal belief that Brian was not . . . done . . ."), Paulsen published The River. This story tells how Brian is recruited by a school that teaches survival skills. He is dropped into another wilderness with an instructor who hopes to learn by observing Brian's physical and mental reactions. When a bolt of lightning knocks his companion unconscious, Brian must construct a raft for a race down river against time. The book received mixed reviews. Some found it a typical sequel that could never match the inventiveness and surprise of the original. Others found it an exciting story that showed Brian's maturity and woodcraft in...
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For Further Reference
Brown, Muriel W. and Rita Schoch Foudray. "Gary Paulsen." In Newbery and Caldecott Medalists and Honor Book Winners. New York: Neal-Schuman, 1992: 324-326. This entry lists awards, includes a bibliography, and mentions background reading material concerning Paulsen through 1991.
Campbell, Patty. "The Young Adult Perplex." Wilson Library Bulletin (January 1988): 75-76. Hatchet is one of three novels in this article, which discusses the problem of being an outsider in an age that emphasizes being a member of the "in-crowd."
Coil, Marianne. Interview. Standing Room Only. National Public Radio. WFYI, Indianapolis. April 7, 1994. Coil's interview focuses on Paulsen's recent novel, Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod and his interest in the race, but it does include some recent personal information about the author.
Commire, Anne, ed. "Gary Paulsen." In Something About the Author. Vol. 54. Detroit: Gale ,1989: 76-82. The majority of personal information about Paulsen found in this entry comes from an interview Marguerite Feitlowitz did for another Gale reference series, Authors and Artists for Young Adults. Details of Paulsen's career and a listing of his writings through 1987 are also included.
Devereaux, Elizabeth. "Gary Paulsen." Publisher's Weekly (March 28, 1994): 70. Devereaux's interview with Paulsen yields information explaining his career's reversal...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Jones, J. Sydney. “Paulsen, Gary.” In Something About the Author, edited by Alan Hedblad. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2000.
Moore, John Noell. “Archetypes: The Monomyth in Dogsong.” In Interpreting Young Adult Literature. Portsmouth, N.H.: Boynton/Cook, 1997.
Paulsen, Gary. Father Water, Mother Woods: Essays on Fishing and Hunting in the North Woods. New York: Delacorte Press, 1994.
Paulsen, Gary. Guts: The True Stories Behind “Hatchet” and the Brian Books. New York: Delacorte Press, 2001.
Salvner, Gary. Presenting Gary Paulsen. Boston: Twayne, 1996.
Wood, Susan. “Bringing Us the Way to Know: The Novels of Gary Paulsen.” English Journal 90, no. 3 (January, 2001): 67-72.
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