Is it the moment the pilot dies, the moment Brian runs out of gas in the Cessna, or the moment Brian escapes from the submerged, wrecked plane that hooks the reader? In any case the combination of all three gets middle school readers of all levels enthralled in the story, prompting them to proclaim, This book is better that literature!
This study of Hatchet by Gary Paulsen covers the 20th anniversary edition of the book, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers and featuring new illustrations by Drew Willis, an introduction by Paulsen reflecting on the book's success, and Paulsen's own annotations sprinkled through the text. The story itself is still about a thirteen year old boy named Brian Robeson who is the sole survivor of a plane crash in the Canadian outback. Brian’s parents are recently divorced, and Brian is on his way to spend the summer with his father, who works in the oil fields of Canada, when the pilot of the small plane has a heart attack and dies. Off-course, Brian flies until he runs out of gas, hits trees and crashes on the way down, ultimately sinking into a lake.
Originally published in 1987 and receiving a Newbery Honor Award in 1988, Hatchet follows Brian’s innermost thoughts as he escapes the plane wreckage, recovers from his injuries, builds a shelter, forages for berries, discovers fire, and ultimately makes his own tools and develops the patience to successfully hunt for food, first by attempting to fish with a spear, then by successfully killing fish, ruffled grouse, and rabbit with a bow and arrow. The story is one of physical survival, but upon deeper inspection, the story is about the spiritual journey of finding oneself, of identifying one’s motivation for surviving.
Brian’s mother had given him a hatchet on the way to the airport at the beginning of the book, and it survives the plane crash with him, attached to his belt. This hatchet is to thank for all of Brian’s firsts that the reader can also celebrate—first fire, first feast, first meat. Just the same, the reader curses Brian’s change of luck when faced with the raw forces of nature. The same day Brian hunts and kills his first “foolbird,” he is spontaneously attacked by a moose and loses his shelter and tools—and nearly his life—to a tornado that rips through his camp, which then continues across the lake. Again, the hatchet is the only thing to survive the disaster along with Brian.
The resolve Brian feels to rise to the survival challenge after the tornado prepares him for his most important endeavor yet: trekking out to the plane in the lake, whose tail has become visible after being jostled by the tornado, in search of the plane’s survival pack. After exhibiting extensive patience, emotional fortitude, and physical exhaustion, Brian secures the survival pack on shore and discovers a host of foodstuffs, supplies, and most importantly, a one way emergency transmitter. He absent-mindedly leaves it turned on and proceeds to focus on the food. It all happens so fast—a pilot hears the signal from the emergency transmitter, lands his small bush plane on the lake, and Brian is rescued after surviving fifty-four days in the Canadian wilderness with little more than his hatchet and his resolve.