72 pages • 2 hours readGary Paulsen
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Hatchet, a Newbery Award-winning novel published in 1987 by author Gary Paulsen, is an esteemed story about a young boy’s struggle to survive after his airplane crashes in the Canadian wilderness. This work of young adult fiction appeals to readers of all ages for its descriptive prose and exciting plot. This guide refers to the 1999 First Aladdin Paperbacks edition.
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Thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson is in the middle of his parent’s divorce and struggling to contain a dark secret: He knows his mother had an affair that caused the divorce. His father does not know. Brian is angry with his mother when he boards a small two-seater airplane bound for Canada, where he will spend the summer with his father. Just before Brian leaves, his mother gives him a hatchet, which he fastens to his belt even though he finds it slightly embarrassing. He doesn’t tell his mother why he is so angry with her, he only broods and refuses to speak to her.
As Brian and the pilot settle in to their flight, the pilot asks if Brian would like to fly the plane. He assures Brian that it is easier than it looks, so Brian gives it a try. Shortly after that, the pilot emits strong flatulence and makes strange sounds. Claiming his left arm is hurting, he tries to make an emergency call for help over the radio. Suddenly, the pilot has a heart attack and dies. Brian is left completely alone and panicked. He tries to radio for help but can’t make a connection.
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When the pilot dies, he jerks the plane off course, and then it flies on autopilot for quite a while. Brian knows no one can save him; it is up to him to land the plane. He decides to aim for a lake to make a water landing, as he assumes landing in the trees will kill him. With tremendous courage, Brian lands the plane in a lake, where the plane dives to the bottom of the water. Brian must free himself from the cockpit and swim to the surface before passing out. Upon losing consciousness, Brian is overcome by memories of his mother and the man she is having an affair with. Throughout the novel the narration alternates between flashbacks of the day Brian saw his mother kissing the other man and the horrors of the pilot dying and the subsequent plane crash.
Stranded at the lake, Brian assesses his position. He has very little on him, apart from his windbreaker, shoes, and hatchet. He is desperately thirsty and hungry, and he has no idea where he has landed. He recalls his English teacher who taught him about keeping a positive attitude. He tries to stay positive and evaluate what resources he does have rather than focus on how lost and alone he is. He finds things to do to keep his mind busy, building a small shelter out of tree limbs and leaves, searching for wild berries, and drinking water from the lake. His first success in eating wild berries (he will later call them gut cherries) results in a night of horrendous food poisoning. Brian learns to choose his food sources carefully and never to gorge, despite his constant hunger. He meets a bear while foraging for raspberries and is later attacked by a porcupine in his shelter. He learns to make fire by striking his hatchet against a flint-like rock after his father and good friend appear in his dreams, giving him coded messages about how to do so. Once he can make fire, Brian can cook things like fish, birds, and eggs. The fire’s smoke also helps alleviate the incessant swarm of mosquitos.
As he gets more comfortable surviving in the elements, Brian notices a change come over him. He feels more grown up and one with nature, unlike the city boy he was when he arrived. One day, a plane flies overhead, and Brian is filled with hope at being rescued. He fans his signal fire, but they don’t see him, and the plane leaves. After that, Brian assumes they will stop searching for him and he will be stranded there forever. He loses hope and tries to kill himself with his hatchet. He doesn’t succeed, and when he wakes up the next morning, he resolves to stay alive. He considers this a rebirth. He calls everything before his suicide attempt the time of old Brian.
He continues to develop his patience and hunting skills, eventually getting good with a bow and arrow, such that he can feast on birds and fish every day. Brian is surprised by an unprovoked moose attack and then by a tornado. The tornado destroys his camp and churns up the lake so much that the airplane shifts in the water. This reminds Brian that there is likely a survival kit in the airplane. He resolves to find a way to retrieve it, even though the thought of the dead pilot in the water scares him. He must first build a raft to take with him so he can hack an opening into the plane with his hatchet. He drops his hatchet while working, but he’s able to retrieve it after many deep, challenging dives. He eventually succeeds in busting into the plane, where there is indeed a substantial survival kit. But Brian is forced to look at the submerged dead pilot, whose body has been decaying and eaten by fish. This makes Brian vomit in his mouth and almost chokes him.
After hauling the heavy pack across the lake and back to camp, Brian discovers that it is full of everything he could possibly need. He feels rich. He now has a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, lighter, transmitter radio, and most importantly, freeze-dried food. He flips the switch on the transmitter a few times and then settles down to make a feast of food packages. After his third orange fizzy drink, he is shocked to see an airplane fly overhead and then land. The pilot disembarks and can’t believe he has found the famous missing boy. He explains that Brian was all over the news, but the search was called off not long ago. He heard Brian’s distress signal on the radio (although Brian had no idea the radio even worked) and saw Brian’s cooking fire, so he came to check.
The novel ends with a stunned Brian offering the pilot something to eat. The Epilogue explains that had Brian not been rescued, then it is unlikely he would have survived the harsh, snowy winter. After rescue, Brian does a lot of research to learn about the animals and plants he has come to know. He maintains his interest in and connection to nature for the rest of his life.
By Gary Paulsen