Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
Simon and Schuster, 2007
Plot Summary: Brian is a teenager whose parents are separated. He knows a secret that caused them to divorce, an affair. He is on his way to Canada to visit his father, who he hasn't seen since they separated. The small plane, housing only the pilot and Brian, crashes due to a fatal heart attack suffered by the pilot. For nearly two months, Brian must survive in the Canadian wilderness. To do so, he must learn how to find and catch food, build a shelter, make a fire, and eventually be able to signal the outside world and find help.
Critical Analysis: Hatchet is the penultimate survival/boy book. It is light on dialogue and heavy on description, Paulsen mostly voices Brian's thoughts about how to survive and his next plan of action. The story moves quickly and a new danger or occurrence is never far from happening. I think this is much of its appeal especially for reluctant readers, there is very little filler in Hatchet.
Part of the problem with Hatchet is the reader's suspension of disbelief. It is well-known that Paulsen knows a lot about wilderness and survival, so it is tough to swallow when Brian aptly applies by-the-book survival skills throughout the novel. Sure, Brian makes mistakes and suffers a fair bit for them, but it seems sudden when he goes from a complete amateur to a spear-building, arrow-slinging expert.
Another problem with the book is Brian's conflict relating to his parents. Clearly, Paulsen's skill lies in his descriptions, not in dramatizing interpersonal relationships and situations. The transitions between survival and Brian's inner turmoil are jarring; Brian will suddenly remember that his parents are separated in the middle of skinning an animal and think about that for a while. This would not be a problem, but the separation of his parents does not have much of an impact on the story. As a character, Brian grows much more through his survival experience rather than his parents' divorce.
Reader's Annotation: Brian's plane crashed and he survived. Now he must find a way to survive in the Canadian wilderness with only a hatchet and the clothes on his back.
Author Information: Paulsen is a bit of a Renaissance man, having done everything from animal trapping to archery. He has also participated in the Iditarod.
Genre: adventure, action, survival
Curriculum Ties: N/A
Booktalking Ideas: What does the hatchet represent to Brian, other than a simple survival tool?
Did you find most of the elements in Hatchet believable? How does it compare to other survival films like Zemeckis' Cast Away and Boyle's 127 Hours?
Reading Level: Ages 12 to 16
Challenge Issues: N/A
Challenge Defense Ideas: No challenge issues come to mind when reading this book. The best defense is having a strong knowledge of the book, so becoming familiar with it by reading reviews, finding other opinions, and reading it one's self is a good start. One could also refer to the library's collection development policy here.
Why I included this title: As I wrote previously, Hatchet is a great book for boys. It moves quickly and portrays admirable qualities for men to have. In terms of survival and adventure books, it is one of the best.