Hatchet delivers a wonderful vicarious adventure. The thoughtful, vivid descriptions and the clear development of character and plot allow readers of all ages to appreciate the wonders of life and the glory of nature. Addressing the fears of all adolescents, author Gary Paulsen uses the wilderness to parallel the emotional and physical pains of coming-of-age. His description of both the grandeur and the danger of the wilderness evokes awe and trepidation.
At the start of the novel, Brian is struggling with the changes in his life caused by his parents’ divorce. Finding himself truly on his own leaves Brian with a primitive urge to survive at all costs. While learning step-by-step how to find food, water, and shelter, he grows physically and emotionally stronger. These changes in Brian’s character develop rapidly as he carves out an existence using only his hatchet. In the beginning of the story, the hatchet symbolized the young Brian. His mother gives it to him with the words “Just like a scout. My little scout,” which convey Brian’s immaturity and frailness in his mother’s eyes. He is embarrassed, worried that the pilot will sees the “hokey” hatchet on his belt when he arrives at the airport. When Brian is alone in the wilderness, however, the hatchet becomes his source of life, much like his mother had been, protecting Brian from nature’s elements. Without it, he could never have survived.
Brian faces many setbacks because of unclear thinking and poor decision making. Charles Darwin’s theory of the “survival of the fittest” applies to Brian’s constant battle with nature. Brian adapts and learns to cope with all adversities—from insects to wild animals to storms. His emotional growth comes from the recognition of the magnificence of life. He learns that life’s problems can be overcome and that struggles can be won with clear thinking and common sense.
Lessons about living from his mother, father, and teachers also guide Brian through his adventure. The awareness that he is strong enough to survive alone comes when he first calls his camp “home”—one of his own creation. He has truly grown into an independent individual who does not rely on anyone else to survive. When rescue workers finally arrive, Brian is not in a hurry to leave; he has almost enjoyed the independence that he has achieved.
Many adolescents can identify fully with the anger and confusion deep within Brian. His adventure symbolizes the emotional highs and lows of young people. After each success, Brian faces a new problem. Life becomes unbearable, but then, all at once, life becomes wonderful. The changes that Brian undergoes involve maturity, self-sufficiency, and the belief that anything is survivable. This message is one of great importance to relay to young adults who are facing the trials associated with coming-of-age.