Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1343
Gary Paulsen has written a series of Western novels for adult readers, but he is best known for his action-adventure stories for young adults. He writes many stories of survival in which the main conflict is that of character versus nature, and many of his characters experience rites of passage into adulthood. Some of his best adventure works, such as the Brian books, are parts of series that center on particular characters. Paulsen’s writing style is most often visual, with a stress on realistic settings. Additionally, his novels frequently revolve around imperfect families; often the main character must seek a person other than his or her parents to provide a support system, and many times this person is a part of the character’s extended family. Paulsen has also ventured into humorous novels for a younger audience.
One active character dominates Hatchet, which is ultimately about survival, maturity, and coming to terms with the divorce of one’s parents. One of the main literary tools Paulsen uses in the book is foreshadowing. This is seen in the first chapter as thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson, who is setting off to spend the summer with his father, learns how to fly the small plane in which he is traveling while the pilot is still healthy and as he reveals that Brian’s mother has a secret. On the way, the pilot has a heart attack and dies. Brian is quickly thrust into the role of an adult as he must decide how he will survive not only the plane crash but also being lost in the wilderness.
As Brian faces the next days alone, lost and desperate, he learns to depend on his own common sense to survive. He draws on his limited knowledge of what to do if lost in the wilderness and begins to be proactive, learning along the way. As he faces many character-versus-nature conflicts, Brian also deals with conflicts within himself as he tries to understand the reasons behind his parents’ divorce and his mother’s secret affair. He matures physically and psychologically during the long period he is forced to fend for himself. He learns to protect himself from dangerous animals, to provide food for himself, and to forgive others for what he perceives as their leaving him.
The novel ends with a number of ironic twists: Brian has learned to survive on his own, and yet he has finally recovered the survival kit from the plane; he has learned to accept that he may not be rescued for a long time, and yet he is finally rescued; he has learned that sharing his mother’s secret may not be the best thing for anyone, but that is okay. This novel, the first in Paulsen’s Brian saga, has been followed by others with Brian as the central character, including The River, Brian’s Winter, Brian’s Return, and Brian’s Hunt.
The Voyage of the Frog
Another survival story, The Voyage of the Frog places the story of fourteen-year-old David Alspeth on the Pacific Ocean rather than in the woodlands of the Brian books. David’s uncle Owen has died, leaving the boy his twenty-two-foot sailboat along with the request that his ashes be scattered in the ocean. David sets sail to fulfill this request but does not take the time to think the trip through carefully. He does not file a trip plan, he does not check the weather reports, and he does not let his parents know where he is going. During the first night, just as David has scattered his uncle’s ashes, the boat is hit by a storm. While David is attempting to fight the storm and get the sails safely tied down, he is so badly injured that he loses time. When he wakes, he finds that the boat is damaged and he is some three hundred miles out to sea.
The novel follows David as he fights against nature to get the boat in sailing condition, as the boat is almost capsized by a large steamer in a shipping channel, and as he struggles against sharks that attack the boat, among other problems. As he works through these conflicts, David also deals with his grief over his uncle’s death; ultimately, he arrives home much more mature than when he left. The survival conflict is the main focus of the story, with the setting being central to the conflict. Characterization comes in second as David’s growth from childhood to adulthood takes place during the journey.
The Winter Room
In The Winter Room, eleven-year-old Eldon tells the story of his family’s farm and how it runs from season to season. He explains the daily workings of the farm in great detail, sharing the thaw of spring, the work of summer, the killing of fall, and the peace of winter. Setting is the central focus of this novel until the end, when winter arrives. In the winter, Eldon, his older brother Wayne, his parents, his great uncle David, and David’s brother Nels sit in the winter room of their home, watching the fire and listening to Uncle David, the family storyteller.
One winter, Wayne comes to believe that the stories Uncle David has been telling are not true; he believes his uncle has just been bragging about himself. When Uncle David overhears Wayne tell Eldon that the stories are lies, he crumbles. However, one day Eldon and Wayne are wrestling in the hayloft and they see Uncle David behind the barn. While they watch, he becomes young again for a moment and accomplishes a feat that Wayne had doubted that he could do. Things get better again after Uncle David proves to himself, and inadvertently to the boys, that he still has worth. As life passes on the farm and Uncle David tells stories in the winter room, Eldon shares the ebb and flow of life, love, and death on a farm. These themes are intertwined in the novel with messages about forgiveness and self-worth. Although characterization is not the central focus of the novel, Uncle David particularly stands out as unforgettable.
Molly McGinty Has a Really Good Day
In one of Paulsen’s few ventures into stories with female protagonists, Molly McGinty Has a Really Good Day provides a humorous view of one day in the life of a sixth-grade girl. The novel starts with Molly obsessing over the loss of her notebook, a three-ring binder in which she has meticulously organized not only her school life, her grandmother’s business, their household affairs, and their varied appointments but also her friends’ and schoolmates’ likes and dislikes as well as multiple family details. The loss of her beloved notebook becomes secondary, however, to the embarrassment Molly struggles with all day at school as Irene, her guardian grandmother, attends school for the annual Senior Citizens Day. Carefree and flamboyant, Irene gains the admiration of all the other kids as she interacts with even the strictest teachers. As Molly watches, she begins to learn the value of sometimes just letting fun, friendship, and impulsive behavior rule.
By the end of the novel, Molly is starting to appreciate Irene in new ways. She also begins to understand that too much regimentation in life limits a person in unexpected ways, sometimes even keeping that person from having a really good day. The role reversal between Molly and Irene in this novel reflects one of Paulsen’s common themes—that of a child having to take on adult responsibilities too early in life. The characterization of the grandmother, however, is more lighthearted than Paulsen’s depictions of many of his irresponsible adult characters. Like Winterkill and a number of his other novels, Molly McGinty Has a Really Good Day is episodic in nature; the only real conflict is the one within Molly as she learns to accept her grandmother as others do. Paulsen’s focus on a flawed adult provides readers with an endearing character whose main fault is that she loves her granddaughter.
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