Gary Paulsen's The Hatchet

Gary Paulsen's The Hatchet tells the tale of Brian Robeson, a thirteen-year-old boy whose parents are recently divorced. He carries with him two things, one physical and the other mental: a hatchet, and a secret. He is en route to visit his father in Canada, similar to Gabe's journey in Far North, when his bush-plane pilot has a heart attack midflight. Brian must land the plane on his own, and albeit inexperienced, does so with some injury to himself. He is stuck on an L-shaped lake without so much as a TV dinner, save for his hatchet and secret. Through over fifty days on the island, Brian survives, but not without difficulty. He learns to use his hatchet to spark a fire, build shelter from the resources of the island, and following birds to food. He also deals with storms, inadequate materials and tools, many insects and wild animals, and the burden of the Secret, which is that his mother was having an affair on his father.


Initially, Brian has no hope of survival. But he knows that if he does not try, he will simply die. So his adventure begins, albeit not a very fun one. Knowing the Secret, he has become very reliant on himself. He remembers things such as what he has seen on television in relation to animal behavior and finding food. He discovers ways of telling time and figuring out the date and marking days. He remembers a very important piece of advice from a teacher: "You are the best asset you have." Brian uses these inspirational words and prior knowledge he has to invent hope. He learns by observing, and remembering, and eventually this proves to be worthwhile when he dives town to the crashed plane and accidentally activates the plane's transmitter. Hope is restored when a fur-trader discovers him and his hope pays off. Young adults will see the inspiration in the tale and recognize that giving up should never be an option, no matter how tough the situation one is in.


The hatchet Brian carries with him symbolizes his reality. It is the one tool that helps him survive. He is able to create fire, carve, pound, and cut food. Its mental aspect is stronger, however. It is Brian's way to bond with his mother. She gave it to him to compensate for the divorce, although he was such a young boy then who didn't know how to cope. However, the gift helps him go from a boy to a man. It symbolizes the strength, albeit tough, of the Secret Brian carries. Although becoming a man can be painful and the reality of it is difficult to endure, the endurance and will overcome Brian and he becomes a man by using the one tool he has. Students will see the gift as a symbol of strength and know that something as simple as a hatchet can change one's life and help them survive, but the gift doesn't have to be something such as a hatchet, the gift could be words of advice, or a lesson taught from a parent or teacher. Brian learns this and realizes that he must survive so he can grow into the man he has become.


Many students reading this book at one time or another have felt isolated. Even when someone has friends, there is always a time when you feel like the world is either against you or just not with you completely. Brian suffered from the latter. He had no one. Even if he was not stranded, he would have one parent or the other, but never both at the same time again due to the divorce. He recalls words of advice from an English teacher of his, though, that help him in is lonely struggle: "Stay positive and stay on top of things" (49). Many student reading this also suffer from self-pity. I have certainly felt sorry for myself, and after I got over it realized how silly and selfish it was. Self-pity leads nowhere but down. Brian cries to himself sometimes and afterwards comes to the realization that this doesn't help. He must do something about it. Eventually this spurns him into action and he visits the crashed plane. Students reading this will see this as a triumph of mind over matter and Brian's strength leads to his rescue. This sends an inspirational message to any reader. This will remind young adults reading this that, although they may pity themselves at times, they are certainly not the only ones in these situations. Brian's situation will hopefully help young readers realize that no matter how tough their situation may seem, it is manageable.


"The thinking started. Always it started with a single word. Divorce" (2). Brian's words early on in the novel help hit home just how much his parent's divorce affects him. Even on the bush-plane where he sees sights many readers may find unimaginable, all he can think of is his parent's divorce. He carries along with him a burden, a Secret, about his parents related to their divorce. Brian thinks constantly about his role in his parent's divorce and wonders how his life may have been different had his parents stayed together, but his Secret wipes these thoughts away. Many students who've read this book can certainly relate. The divorce rate in our country is high, and Brian is a casualty of this. The way he deals with it can relate to many readers. It isolates one and can make one feel responsible. I recall when my parent's divorced the irrationality I suffered. I wanted my parents to stay together but now reflect on the fact that had they, it would've made everyone unhappy. Brian's message throughout the story relates how I feel know about my parents. Although this may not be true for every family who suffers from divorce, it is a hopeful message that we can all survive and make it, no matter how tough our situation.

The novel was adapted into a film A Cry In The Wild, although it did not enjoy as much critical acclaim as the text.

Although published in 1987, the novel is a three-time winner of the Newberry Honor in a time when young adult novel awards were seldom given.

Paulsen, G. (1987). The Hatchet . New York: Bradbury Press.

N., M., & , S. (n.d.). Hatchet: A struggle of the Body and the Mind.. YA Reviews. Retrieved April 20, 2011, from