“What’s the last ‘best’ book you read on your own?” I would ask students when I taught middle and high school.
When I asked them this question, the boys almost always answered “Hatchet“.
“That’s the last book I read, too,” many would admit.
The number of Hatchet fans was 100% among the vocational agriculture students I taught for seven years in a rural school in Northwest Connecticut. Their love of this novel resonated with their desire for independence, adventure, and the outdoors.
The author Gary Paulsen shares many of these interests according to his biography:
Running away from home at the age of 14 and traveling with a carnival, Paulsen acquired a taste for adventure. A youthful summer of rigorous chores on a farm; jobs as an engineer, construction worker, ranch hand, truck driver, and sailor; and two rounds of the 1,180-mile Alaskan dog sled race, the Iditarod; have provided ample material from which he creates his powerful stories.
In Hatchet, Paulsen’s protagonist, Brian Robeson, is a thirteen-year-old boy from New York City. From the onset, Brian is ill-prepared to meet the hardships of the wilderness when the single engine plane he is riding in from New York to Canada crashes because the pilot had a heart attack. Thus begins a compelling survival story, and my students loved survival stories; many of them were experienced hunters or fishermen.
The opening chapters of Hatchet also cover Brian’s personal background, his knowledge of his mother’s affair and his parent’s subsequent divorce, and the events leading up to the plane crash. Since the pilot had offered Brian a few minutes of flight lessons, he is able to control the descent of the plane until it crashes into a lake. He swims to safety with his only asset, a small hatchet he has taken from the crash.
Brian’s wilderness education alternates between emotions of loneliness and his physical needs. He learns to respect the natural world through a series of unexpected encounters with a bear, a porcupine, and a wolf. A turtle’s eggs give him a food source until he learns how to fish. He learns how to build a fire and how to store food properly after a serious spraying by a skunk. Initially devastated about his inability to signal a passing plane for help, Brian works to improve his skills by constructing a studier lean-to. These incidents mark a change in the “new” Brian, one who is far more self-reliant than the “city boy” who left on the plane to Canada. My students enjoyed the notion that “city boy” values must change to include skills they valued as well.
In recounting Brian’s emotional turmoil caused by his parent’s recent divorce, Paulsen uses simple and effective word choice and syntax; Brian is monosyllabic with memories, “The words. Always the words. Divorce. The Secret. Fights. Split. The big split.” Many of my male students spoke monosyllabically as well. These simple statements capture Brian’s stream of consciousness effectively without sentimentality.
There is just the right amount of the “yuck” factor in the novel to satisfy a young male reader. When the plane resurfaces, Brian decides to retrieve the plane’s flight location transmitter. While diving in the plane, he comes upon the decomposing body of the pilot:
“The fish. He’d never really thought of it, but the fish—the fish he had been eating all this time had to eat, too. They had been at the pilot all this time, almost two months, nibbling and chewing and all that remained was the not quite cleaned skull and when he looked up it wobbled loosely.”
Paulsen illustrates Brian’s growth as he learns how to adapt to increasingly dangerous situations; he survives a tornado and a terrifying moose attack. The reader is increasing aware of the self-confidence that Brian develops towards the end of the novel:
“Come on, he thought, baring his teeth in the darkness—come on. Is that the best you can do—is that all you can hit me with—a moose and a tornado? Well, he thought, holding his ribs and smiling, then spitting mosquitoes out of his mouth. Well, that won’t get the job done. That was the difference now. He had changed, and he was tough. I’m tough where it counts—tough in the head.”
54 days after the plane accident, Brian is rescued. Like all characters in a coming-of-age novel, he is not the same; he is more introspective and thoughtful. Paulsen’s narrative convinces students that Brian’s transformation is real, and that maybe such transformations are possible for themselves.
The novel’s grade level equivalent is 6.3; the Lexile® measure is 1020, but labeling the interest level as grades 6-8 is a mistake. My students’ interest in Hatchet was the standard for all other reading choices as in, “This book is not like Hatchet” (*sigh*) or “This book is almost as good as Hatchet.”
Hatchet was the 1988 Newbery Honor book and, fortunately for teachers wishing to offer books like Hatchet, it is the first in a trilogy + one. After Hatchet came The River,(1991); Brian’s Winter, (1996); and then Brian’s Return, (1999).
Paulsen also has two non-fiction offerings: the book Guts, a set of true short stories of survival, and Winterdance, a story of running the Iditarod. Both titles were also popular with my students.
Paulsen’s wilderness experiences set a high standard for adventure stories for my students, and the experience of reading this book was often so powerful that I had to (figuratively) drag them “out of the woods” in the book to notice other compelling stories on our classroom’s bookshelves.
Hatchet was my “go to” for the reluctant reader, and I always had several copies on hand to lend out. There were copies for the first time reader and for the re-reader, but I did have to draw the line on occasion. While Hatchet can still be the best book some of my students have ever read, it cannot be their last.