Hatchet is one of those adventure books that you either love or hate. There’s much in it that can be considered implausible (see the final note), but there is also plenty that keeps you from putting the book down until the last page is turned. For adults, it’s an easy read; for early teens, it is an adventure story that is capable of pulling the reader into the story and challenging them to think how they would stack up in the same situation.
The story is pretty basic: Brian’s parents have split up and he is sent by his mother to spend time with his father in northern Canada, on a small airplane. The pilot suffers a heart attack, the plane goes off course and eventually crashes into a lake. The pilot dies, but Brian survives the crash landing and figures out a way to survive in the wilderness. After the initial shock of the crash wears off and Brian realizes he has to use his brain and his one limited resource (his hatchet), he learns little by little how to survive from one day to the next. For a city-kid without survival training, he does an amazing job!
After 54 days, he is rescued, and returns home a changed person: more thoughtful, slower to speak, and more appreciative of modern amenities.
The book is popular with boys and girls, and is especially important because there is a need for good “teen guy” fiction if boys are expected to develop any love of reading. I suspect its popularity comes from the likable character as well as a believable characterization of an average teen boy. Brian’s thoughts and actions after the crash are not heroic, but a great example of inner strength overshadowing panic—inner strength that Brian did not know he possessed. In a culture where parents are often accused of being too involved in their children’s lives and over-concerned with keeping them safe and risk-free, it’s refreshing for teens to relate to a character that demonstrate what many older adults have learned with age—you can do a lot more than you ever thought if you have to!
Comparisons of Hatchet with other books is probably inevitable. My Side of the Mountain has similar survival themes, but there are glaring differences between Brian and Sam. Brian is confronted with the wilderness and a need to survive without any preparation while Sam approaches the wilderness as a challenge he feels he is well prepared for. Brian is an unlikely invader and Sam is a willing participant. Other books that have a similar adventure feel are Treasure Island and Huckleberry Finn, both of which have a more difficult reading level, but make use of the wilderness as a partial backdrop. Does anyone even read them anymore? If not, it’s a shame as they are both exciting adventure books, although of a different time and place.
Most often, the themes that are explored in Hatchet are those of emotions and survival, but the wilderness backdrop can present an entirely different focus. There are 12 different plants, 33 animals (mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, insects, and aquatic animals), and 13 natural phenomenon mentioned in the book. It seems a shame that we overlook ways that that book can be used to excite students about nature and the diversity waiting just off the paved road. If we would read Hatchet with an eye for what it can reveal about the natural world rather than for the emotional angst of teens, we might discover an entirely different way to connect children with nature. I’d like to see this discussion go in that direction.
Two final thoughts— although there are a number of sequels to Hatchet, one of which is actually an alternative ending in which Brian must survive a northern Canadian winter, there is a certain curiosity in me that wonders how the book might have ended differently. What if Brian had been “beaten” by the wilderness or even not survived? That plot would be much darker, and perhaps not suitable for its intended audience, but might encourage more discussion about the place of wilderness in our inner fears. (If Brian had not survived, how would he have met his demise and when/if/how would he have been recovered.
Secondly, throughout the book, there are scenarios that seem real and exciting and some that are just plausible, but there are also a couple of things that just don’t work. The biggest error is that the plane is described as a small, 2-passenger Cessna 406. The Cessna 406 which is a big, twin engine plane. It would more likely have been a Cessna 120 or 140 and, while that is not really important, it is annoying to me. The lake is BIG—big enough so that a crashed plane did not leak enough gas and oil (much less the pilot’s decomposing body) to kill many fish or pollute the water. The plane’s emergency transmitter doesn’t go off on impact as it is designed to do, (which certainly happens), but miraculously begins to work after being in water for 2 months. Technically, that’s annoying, but it’s necessary for the plot to work.
Compare these books to Hatchet
As we continue this online discussion about Hatchet, think about how you might use the book to connect children, especially teen boys, to the natural environment. How would you compare the themes in Hatchet and My Side of the Mountain ? And how would you compare Hatchet to Lord of the Flies (or would you!?)