Hatchet Summary

Hatchet is a novel by Gary Paulsen in which Brian Robeson, the sole survivor of a plane crash, must learn how to survive in the Canadian wilderness. Here are some key plot summary points:

  • Brian is traveling to see his father when his plane crashes in the Canadian wilderness. He struggles to fend for himself in the harsh environment.
  • Using the hatchet gifted to him by his mother, Brian begins acclimating to his surroundings. However, it is only after he gives up hope of returning to his old life that he begins thriving.
  • Brian is eventually rescued, but it is clear that he has been irreparably altered by his experiences.


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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Gary Paulsen's Hatchet is a story of adventure and survival. When the plane taking thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson to visit his father crashes in the Canadian wilderness, Brian is left to fend for himself. He manages to survive for fifty-four days until he is rescued. The novel invites readers to share Brian's struggles and triumphs and imagine what they would do if they found themselves in a similar situation.

As the novel opens, Brian Robeson is in a small plane, flying north to visit his father. The pilot, a man named Jim or Jake, does not say much, so Brian is left to his own thoughts. His mind returns to his parents' recent divorce and The Secret that haunts Brian. He knows something about the divorce that his father does not, and he feels "his eyes beginning to burn" with unshed tears.

The pilot opens up a bit and shows Brian how to fly the plane, even letting the boy try it. As the pilot takes back the controls, Brian realizes that he has the hatchet his mother gave him still tucked into his belt. Soon, however, Brian realizes there is something wrong. The pilot suffers a heart attack in the plane and falls unconscious. Brian believes the man to be dead.

Brian is now alone, "sitting in a bushplane roaring seven thousand feet above the northern wilderness" with no idea what to do. He makes radio contact with someone, but only briefly. The plane flies on, miles off course, as Brian tries to control it and plan for landing. Eventually, the engine cuts and the boy manages, almost miraculously, to bring the plane down into a lake. Brian is injured but escapes the crashed plane and loses consciousness on the shore.

As Brian lies on the lakeshore, he remembers The Secret again. He was out with his friend Terry when he saw his mother sitting in a car with another man. They were kissing. Now Brian screams. He is in pain but alive.

The first few days are near torture for Brian. He hurts all over and has nothing but what is on him, for the plane has sunk into the lake. He must deal with ravaging insects and his injuries, yet he knows he must have fire and food. So gradually, and with many mistakes, he learns how to fend for himself.

Brian finds berries and drinks from the lake. He also gets painfully swatted in the leg by a porcupine. He creates a shelter for himself and starts a fire using his hatchet for sparks, carefully kindling those into a flame. As he gazes at the fire with a sense of accomplishment, he thinks, "I have a friend. . . . A hungry friend, but a good one. I have a friend named fire."

Brian keeps the fire going and finds more food in some turtle eggs. He continues to hope that searchers will find him as he maintains his camp and regains his strength. Brian is already seeing and hearing the world differently. He decides that fish would make good food, and there are many "things to do" to catch them.

One day, Brian hears a plane. He starts the signal fire he had prepared, but the plane turns away, leaving Brian devastated and almost despairing. He soon tries to end his life, but he is unsuccessful. He feels as if the plane's passing has "gutted him and dropped him and left him with nothing." But as a new day dawns, Brian becomes determined to live.

The days pass, and Brian learns how to catch fish with a makeshift bow and arrow and how to better interact with the wilderness around him. After a skunk breaks in, he reinforces his shelter, steals the turtle eggs, and sprays Brian right in the face. Brian makes many mistakes but soon learns that everything in the wilderness happens "incredibly quick." He has to plan ahead to keep his mistakes from turning into disasters.

Brian learns how to corral a supply of fish and how to catch "foolbirds," as he calls them. His "First Meat," as he thinks of it, is an amazing thrill, and "never never never had he tasted anything as fine as that first bite."

However, Brian suffers two significant setbacks. First, he is attacked by a rogue moose, which injures his ribs and shoulder. As he tries to recover, a tornado tears through his camp and almost takes Brian with it. The tornado does something else that puts Brian on the road to rescue: it brings the plane's tail to the lake's surface. Brian remembers the survival bag still in the plane and decides to try to recover it.

Brian builds a raft and begins to take the aluminum off the plane. At one point, he drops his most valuable possession, his hatchet, but after several dives, he manages to recover it. In the end, he finds the survival bag and is amazed by everything inside.

Yet somehow, the butane lighter and food packets do not entirely satisfy Brian. He has gotten used to doing things on his own, and these luxuries seem too easy. The pack gives him "up and down feelings." But the bag also contains an emergency transmitter. Brian does not think it works.

However, the transmitter does work, and before too long, a plane flies in out of nowhere. The stunned pilot heard the transmitter. Brian is rescued at last. He is never the same after his experiences, and he looks at life much differently. He often dreams of his time in the wilderness, yet they are good dreams, and he has finally come to terms with his parents' divorce and The Secret.

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