Strength in the Face of Danger: A Review of ‘Hatchet’ by Gary Paulsen

“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”– St. Francis of Assisi

Reading Level: Grades 5-6

Interest Level:  Grades 5-8

Review and Comments:

As Brian buckles his seat belt and settles in the small plane to begin a trip to visit his father for the summer, he never dreams his life is about to change forever. He is distracted by angry, raging thoughts about his parents’ divorce.  In the tangle of all of those emotions is a secret about his mom and that “Secret” is like an anchor weighing him down not only in his heart but in his thoughts. Those thoughts again assault his mind as he begins his flight. After a lengthy period of silence, he and the pilot finally begin to talk a bit. Brain is surprised when the pilot shows him how to use the rudder, and he actually flies the plane on his own.  After that things go horribly wrong.  The pilot has a heart attack and dies leaving Brian alone flying over the vast Canadian woods.

Brian is seized by terror and his thoughts are a jumble as he tries to comprehend his situation. He can’t get through to anyone clearly on the radio. He doesn’t know where he is.  He is alone.  He is going to run out of fuel.  He is going to die.

For more than an hour Brian fights to keep the plane in flight and plans a strategy for a possible landing. The plane crashes into a lake, and he has to fight for his life. He awakens battered and weak.   He is sure he will be rescued in a few days at the most, but there is a nagging feeling that it could be longer because the plane veered off course when the pilot hit the steering wheel.

After some time Brian knows he has to rely on himself.  He must decide if drinking the water in the lake is safe, he must find food, and he must find shelter.  Then in an unusual flash, the lessons from his English teacher come to mind. “Stay on top of things.  Stay motivated.”  This becomes his rallying cry. He still has the hatchet his mother gave him attached to his belt – absolutely crucial for his survival.  He uses a natural bowl shaped alcove under a rock ledge for his shelter.  As the days pass he improves his “home” by adding a wall for protection and a safe place to keep his food.  The next challenge is to find something to eat. Always there is a search for something to eat.  At first he finds some choke cherries and raspberries but he also encounters his first bear.  Soon after that he is attacked by a porcupine in the middle of the night in his shelter. That attack makes him realize he must have fire. It takes him many, many frustrating tries and using his ax he finally succeeds. The days are now filled with an unending search for food and wood to feed the fire.  He discovers there are numerous kinds of fish in the lake and he has no way to catch them. The new goal is to make some kind of weapon.  Again there is trial and error as Brain constructs a bow and arrow and a spear using his hatchet.  He perfects his attempts to catch some fish and is soon eating all he can catch. He eventually hones his hunting skills to add ruffled grouse and rabbits to his menu.

Next to his shelter he stacks wood for a bonfire to signal a possible search plane. The day he finally hears a plane the fire is not large enough to attract attention, and Brian’s call for help is useless.  At that moment Brian realizes no one is going to rescue him, and he is truly alone and not just for a few days. Brian seems to transform after that – not the Brian after the accident but a Brian who is focused, determined and “one who has gained in his ability to observe what is happening and react to it.” He knows two things: “He is not the same boy who got on that plane and he likes that feeling.  He will not give into death.”

Brian’s world is shaken again when he is violently attacked by a moose and almost drowns. The same night he finds himself in the middle of a tornado, which wreaks havoc on his efforts to survive. There is so much loss and a great amount of rebuilding to accomplish. In a bizarre turn of events, Brain sees the storm has also raised the tail of the plane to the surface of the lake.  He remembers there is a survival pack in the tail of the plane, and he needs that pack! The complicated plan to get the pack takes two days because Brian is still hurting from the moose attack and weak from lack of food.  His hatchet is again essential as he cuts his way through the outer skin of the plane. At one point he accidentally drops the hatchet into the lake. Brian knows survival is inconceivable without his hatchet so he dives multiple times until he finally finds it stuck on the bottom.  Eventually Brian has to climb inside the tail to retrieve the pack and that forces him to face the pilot who is still belted in his seat

Back on shore, Brian carefully inspects each item in the survival pack.  They are “unbelievable riches!” One of the items is a small electronic device – an emergency transmitter. He thinks it is broken and puts it aside.  He finally has some food that he does not have to hunt and kill.  While preparing his meal he hears and then sees a plane land on the lake. After fifty-four days of being alone and trying to survive, Brian is rescued.  He is not the same boy and never will be.

This first adventure book of Brian’s saga will definitely appeal to readers in grades five and six who crave suspenseful action and vivid detail.  Older students will also enjoy Gary Paulson’s writing style which enhances the tension in the story of Brian’s survival from the very real plane crash to the hunt for the survival pack. The reader experiences Brian’s deepest thoughts, the trials of his survival, and memories of his parents’ divorce through flashbacks.  Brian’s journey is a page turner and well worth reading.

Hatchet (1987)                 

  • First book in the Brian’s Saga series
  • 1987 Newberry Honor Award

The River (1991)

  • Chronologically this is the third book.

Brian’s Winter (1996)      

  • Chronologically this is the second book.  It offers an alternative ending to Hatchet.

Brian’s Return (1999)      

Brian’s Hunt (2003)

 Possible Issues:

Brain remembers the “Secret.”

  1. “His mother. She was sitting in a station wagon, a strange station wagon.  He saw her and she did not see him.  Brian was going to wave or call out, but something stopped him.  There was a man in the car.  Short blond hair, the man had. Wearing some kind of white pullover tennis shirt.”
  2. Later Ryan goes through the same scenario and sees his mother kiss the strange man.

There is a long description of the pilot’s heart attack.

  1. “Now there was a constant odor, and Brian took another look at the pilot, found him rubbing the shoulder and down the arm now, the left arm, letting go more gas and wincing.”
  2. “More smell now.   Brian turned again to glance at the pilot who had both hands on his stomach and was grimacing in pain….”
  3. “And now a jolt took him like a hammer blow, so forcefully that he seemed to crush back into the seat, …..”
  4. “The pilot’s mouth went rigid; he swore and jerked a short series of slams into the seat, holding his shoulder now. Swore and hissed, “Chest! Oh God, my chest is coming apart!”
  5. “……he saw the pilot slam into the seat one more time, one more awful time he slammed back into the seat and his right leg jerked,……and his head fell forward and spit came. Spit came from the corners of his mouth and his legs contracted up, up into the seat, and his eyes rolled back in his head until there was only white.”

After the search plane leaves without seeing him, Brian wanted to die.  He uses his hatchet to cut himself to try and end it, but “the cutting was hard to do and in the end he just wished for death.”

While Brian is retrieving the survival pack out of the plane he sees the pilot after he has been in the water for weeks.

  1. “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 the remained was the not quite cleaned skull and when he look up it wobbled loosely.”

Brian finds a rifle in the survival pack.

  1. “It was a .22 survival rifle ….. It was a strange feeling, holding the rifle.  It somehow removed him from everything around him.  Without the rifle he had to fit in, to be part of it all, to understand it and use it – the woods, all of it.”
  2. “The rifle changed him, the minute he picked it up, and wasn’t sure he liked the change very much. He set it aside….He could deal with the feeling later.”

Further Discussion:

  • At the conclusion of the book, there is a very good informational section about the book: pre-reading activities, discussion topics, culminating thoughts, and a writing activity. These activities and topics are very appropriate for grades 5-8.
  • Brian keeps a mental journal of his adventure.  Suppose he had one more resource besides his hatchet – a journal and pencil or pen. While reading, enter the daily struggles he experiences in the journal as if you were Brian.
  • Trauma is often thought of as physical injuries. Psychological trauma is an emotionally painful, shocking, stressful, and sometimes life-threatening experience. It may or may not involve physical injuries, and can result from witnessing distressing events.”
  • After violence or disaster, parents and family members should identify and address their own feelings — this will allow them to help others. Explain to children what happened and let them know:
  • You love them
  • The event was not their fault
  • You will do your best to take care of them
  • It’s okay for them to feel upset.
  • Allow children to cry
  • Allow sadness
  • Let children talk, write, or draw pictures about the event or their feelings

[From “Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Violence and Disasters: What Parents Can Do”]

 Catholic Resources:

Article: “Children of Divorce” 

CCC 2417    God entrusted animals to the stewardship of those whom he created in his own image. Hence it is legitimate to use animals for food and clothing. They may be domesticated to help man in his work and leisure. Medical and scientific experimentation on animals is a morally acceptable practice if it remains within reasonable limits and contributes to caring for or saving human lives.

CCC 2415    The seventh commandment enjoins respect for the integrity of creation. Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity.195 Use of the mineral, vegetable, and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives. Man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation.

2385    Divorce is immoral also because it introduces disorder into the family and into society. This disorder brings grave harm to the deserted spouse, to children traumatized by the separation of their parents and often torn between them, and because of its contagious effect which makes it truly a plague on society.

1614 In his preaching Jesus unequivocally taught the original meaning of the union of man and woman as the Creator willed it from the beginning: permission given by Moses to divorce one’s wife was a concession to the hardness of hearts.106 The matrimonial union of man and woman is indissoluble: God himself has determined it: “what therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *