Critical Context

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Gary Paulsen has truly captured the adventurous spirit of many teenagers. Young readers and their teachers have come to enjoy, share, and recommend Paulsen’s books to peers who enjoy adventure stories. His tales of protagonists-versus-nature portray characters who battle the elements while gaining a sense of self. Guided and cajoled by the forces of nature, Paulsen’s characters develop and change in a quick, clear, and efficient manner. The readability levels of his works lie between the fourth and eighth grades, which makes these easy-to-read novels quite adaptable for either independent or school-oriented reading.

Hatchet is a classic tale of a boy’s struggle with the problems of coming-of-age. Its sequel, The River (1991), allows the reader to resume the adventure and watch as Brian Robeson continues to master his universe. The reader is allowed to struggle with and feel the pain of the protagonist, as well as to revel in his joy at surviving. Paulsen’s many adventure stories include The Island (1988), in which a young boy discovers that isolation from the world will not help him solve his problems; Woodsong (1990), a personal work based on Paulsen’s own experience in the Iditarod dogsled race; Dogsong (1985), a realistic and romantic quest of Russe, a young Eskimo, in the snow-covered wilderness; and Canyons (1990), a spiritual tale and quest adventure that weaves the life of a contemporary adolescent with the life of an adolescent Indian boy who was hunted and killed by soldiers in the nineteenth century. All these stories, and many more adventures from this prolific writer, speak to the primitive sense of survival and adventure in the human spirit.

In Paulsen’s novels, the relationship between humankind and nature is revealed as both symbiotic and challenging. Humans need nature in order to survive, and the need to overcome and tame it has been a mystical quest that all people experience to some degree at some time in their lives, although they may not be able to recognize or name those experiences. Paulsen delightfully describes this quest to overcome and understand the nature of human existence. Hatchet and Paulsen’s other vivid, captivating nature-oriented stories give readers an opportunity to commune with nature and revel in its splendor while appreciating its danger and reverence.