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 lake, Brian realizes that he must do something if he wants to survive, and he tries to recall everything that he knows about survival. Through many trials and errors, he learns that his hatchet can be used to make shelter, design tools, hunt food, and protect him.
Through all these physical challenges, Brian dwells on “the secret” that he alone knows about his parents’ divorce: He had seen his mother meeting with another man before his parents were divorced. His struggle to keep this secret gnaws at his emotional well-being until it becomes all-consuming. While facing nature’s challenges, however, Brian becomes aware that life is indeed not fair, that one must make the best of any situation. He comes to realize that his father and mother are separate entities from himself and that they had their own challenges to face and resolve, issues that had nothing to do with Brian.
In the end, after facing his own mortality several times, Brian also learns that he can rely upon himself for his physical and emotional needs. He has become a mature, less emotionally dependent individual who can survive in the face of diversity and challenge.