Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2241
Anyone choosing to familiarize oneself with the stories of Paulsen might acknowledge his debt to his literary predecessor, Jack London (Paulsen has written an introduction to an edition of London’s 1903 Call of the Wild). Paulsen’s work might be best recognized within the literary movement that London, himself, is most readily identified with: American naturalism. Paulsen’s naturalism asks the reader to study the characters objectively within his fictions working in or out of concert with capricious nature. Paulsen’s characters thereby often operate by instinct and self-governed passion. Their success or failure is largely outside of their control and given to the whim of an indifferent nature, but often they can survive if youth, imagination, and adaptability is on their side.
In connection with this viewpoint, Paulsen often writes of youthful men from a third-person omniscient perspective. This approach allows for tension to heighten in his plots by distancing the reader from the security of the protagonist’s thoughts and illustrating them as alone with only their wits to aid them against their isolation. In some cases, Brian in Hatchet (1987) and Russel in Dogsong, for example, this concept can be seen as obvious within their situation: Brian’s plane crash leaves him alone to survive in the woods, and Russel specifically takes his spiritual journey by himself as he feels that all who surround him have been corrupted by civilization. Other times, however, the feeling of isolation is more subtle. For example, in Soldier’s Heart (1998), the Union Army surrounds Charley Goddard—he is never alone—but within his own mind he can neither find nor appreciate any offered companionship or bond. When the possibility of a connection with another soldier seems likely, the nature of the war intervenes with that soldier’s untimely death.
With this isolation, Paulsen’s writing is characterized by a terse, limited dialogue and a very clean prose style often critically compared to Hemingway. His narratives are often constructed upon the observation and reporting of the characters’ situation with scant glances into their minds. This reporter’s stance offers the reader a powerful, never-retreating and often unforgiving view of the world in all its glory and infamy; Paulsen spares the reader no detail, no matter how visceral, in order to preserve the reality of the situation. For example, when the medics must operate out in the chilly cold of the Civil War in winter, a lead surgeon instructs Charley to create a barrier out of the corpses of fallen soldiers to cut the wind. Exhausted both mentally and physically after doing do, he falls asleep next to the wall to keep warm.
Survival, as such, proves to be Paulsen’s most dominant theme. In many instances, in order to survive, Paulsen’s characters arguably revert to a feral state that they were not aware existed within them, as when Brian eats innumerable raw turtle eggs in order to stave off starvation or when Charley discovers an insatiable bloodlust to kill Confederate soldiers when he feels that his survival is predicated upon either killing or being killed. Likewise, the incursion of civilization upon nature, the apparent facade of humanity’s belief that it can domesticate the wild, frequents Paulsen’s stories and is vilified. More often than not, characters who do survive his stories quickly discover that nature will tame them before they will tame it. Thus, Paulsen’s figures often undergo a transformation: Brian, Russel, and Charley all regard it as a form of rebirth where their old selves dissolve and fall away under the weight of their new circumstances.
First published: 1985
Type of work: Novel
Fearing the loss of his cultural mores, a young boy takes a dog team on a quest to reclaim his traditions and find himself.
At times almost impressionistic in its narrative, Dogsong tells the story of Russel Susskit, a young Inuit living in the shadows of what he perceives as Western society’s incursion upon his Eskimo culture. Partially inspired by a seven-day-run Paulsen himself took in Minnesota during his trapping days and his two runs of the nearly twelve-hundred-mile Iditarod, the plot approaches the idea that to know oneself is to know nature and reject civilization and all its trappings.
Western civilization, for Russel, brings about the destruction of tradition, whether that comes in the form of his father’s abandonment of tribal religion in lieu of accepting the missionary’s Jesus Christ or the disintegration of his people’s songs—the oral history which they no longer sing. His father notices Russel’s discontent and acquiesces to him finding himself through the old ways. There is almost a resigned desperation to Russel’s father since he has become so far separated from his own culture that he cannot teach Russel of the old traditions—he can only point him to a surrogate who can: the elder Oogruk.
Even to Russel, the idea is somewhat preposterous: While the community venerates and respects Oogruk’s role in their society, he is blind and therefore considered invalid and he is also considered wildly eccentric and completely out of touch with the contemporary mores encroaching upon his people. Oogruk, however, becomes the panacea for Russel’s angst when he sets him off on a path with no direction except self-fulfillment. He teaches Russel the traditional ways and values of the hunter, and he teaches him about the value of his pack dogs.
The dogs themselves are possibly the most complex element of Dogsong. Both his property and his custodians, the dogs are an invaluable part of Russel’s mission and survival. Oogruk intuits that Russel must drive the dogs north to come to a rite of passage where he will become a man. In this process, Russel comes to discover the dogs as idiosyncratically as he does the world around him. They become characters within their own right with their own personalities, particularly the lead dog who becomes, in many ways, Russel’s copilot and confidant.
Russel’s run, like the parentage of the wolf/dogs themselves, is hybrid, part waking dream, part reality—the further Russel journeys into it, the more he begins to lose distinction between the two until his narrative loses its borders and becomes a “dreamrun” of indistinguishable qualities. The dream itself seems to bring Russel closer to the traditions that he seeks. By the same token, it is marked with insidious portents pointing to his death, the death of others, and the death of great beasts—all of which seem to come at his hands. As the dual narratives of dream and reality continue to blur, these potentially grim omens come to fruition when he discovers an outcast Eskimo girl nearly frozen to death in a storm. Arguably, Russel discovers his purpose when he determines to overcome the death that haunts his dreams by saving the life of the girl and her unborn child. The resultant events become the song eponymous with the novel’s title.
First published: 1987
Type of work: Novel
Stranded alone in the Canadian wilderness after a plane crash, a young boy must adapt to his new environment in order to survive until help arrives.
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.
First published: 1998
Type of work: Novella
A young Minnesota boy’s romantic misconceptions about the Civil War are quickly dispelled when he lies about his age and enlists to fight.
Soldier’s Heart deviates from Paulsen’s other work as it does not directly have autobiographical analogues to his own life. However, it is partially modeled on the real-life exploits of Charley Goddard, a Minnesota farm boy who decides to enlist in the Union Army during an earlier point in the Civil War.
Therein, the story itself does have biographical tenets, but the narrative distances itself from Charley (as Charley does from others during the war) by unabashedly looking at his naïveté and romanticism surrounding the conflict. He enlists thinking that this shooting war, as he calls it, will be more exciting than a circus, even though he has never been to a circus either. Paulsen continues with his trend toward family dissolution by having Charley leave his mother behind in Minnesota for the war under the auspices that he can occupy his dead father’s position as a provider for the family. Knowing that he is driven to the war, Charley’s mother relents.
His romantic delusions, though, are quickly shattered. Couched within Paulsen’s laconic narrative is an exhaustive history lesson of the Civil War from Charley’s perspective. The longer he remains within the conflict, the more the battles, deaths, and disturbing sensory impressions he receives change his perspective from boy to man in a matter of months. Age no longer becomes a determinate factor of maturity for Charley; though possibly younger than Nelson, a new recruit to his unit, he is not nearly as green as Nelson, and that becomes a determining factor of life and death.
Death itself surrounds Charley. He quickly determines that his own is imminent and that there is nothing that can stop it. Just as quickly, Charley begins to covet death, not for himself necessarily but for that of his enemy, the rebel Confederate army. This does not come without complexity either. In one of the more complex exchanges of the entire work, Charley and an unnamed rebel discuss trading supplies while both are stationed in a hot zone. Charley comes to discover that these people he is fighting and killing are people very similar to himself: young farmers with families back at home. When the war ends and he finally returns home, it becomes difficult for Charley to separate himself from the atrocities that he has seen and has committed from the civility that now surrounds him. Survival, at this point, becomes one of reintegration into a world he tried to protect but does not understand anymore.
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