I haven’t been reading exclusively rereads lately, but I seem to be reviewing all of those…and today continues the trend. I recently reread Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, one of my favorite survival stories.
Thirteen-year-old Brian was the only passenger on a flight into the Canadian wilderness on a small bush plane, when the pilot suffers a fatal heart attack. Brian manages to crash-land the plane on a lake and scramble out of the wreckage with no serious injuries. But he’s far off of the original flight plan, rescue is uncertain, and he has no resources but what he’s wearing–including a hatchet hanging on his belt. With courage and ingenuity, Brian learns to survive in the wilderness.
I find this book hits a nice balance between focus on character and details of wilderness survival. Except for the very beginning and (spoiler…) the very end, Brian is the only character. The book remains always centered on him, and whatever else happens or whatever he does, it all hinges around how it affects Brian, or how it’s an outgrowth of his character.
There’s quite a lot of minute detail when Brian realizes that his hatchet of the title can be used to create fire (striking sparks into flammable material, to put it very basically). And yet, this detail worked better for me better than similar detail did in Little House in the Big Woods. It’s all about how Brian comes up with new ideas or deals with setbacks, and then there’s also the tension of whether he’ll be successful (unlike in “To Build a Fire,” I actually cared about this character). I also loved the primeval element, the way the ability to build fire changes everything for Brian’s survival.
There’s also a nice balance of fear and strength in Brian’s handling of the situation. He’s scared and alone and if he had handled it all calmly I wouldn’t have believed it at all. There’s even a moment where he contemplates killing himself because he just can’t face it all–but obviously he keeps going, and the book is overall much more hopeful than it is grim.
I don’t know enough about wilderness survival to know how accurate Paulsen’s details are, but it all felt reasonable enough. And somewhere (maybe the last time I read this) I read an essay or author’s note discussing Paulsen’s own wilderness experience. He said he’d tried everything in the book himself, except for using a hatchet to make fire. So to make sure it was possible, he spent a few hours in his backyard with a hatchet until he had fire (and his wife thought he must be crazy…)
This book was written for readers around Brian’s age, but as an adult reader I still found it very engaging (and a very fast read!) It doesn’t make me want to go live in the wilderness, but it did make me think about some of the lessons of independence and courage that Brian learned. Highly recommended!
Buy it here: Hatchet