Hatchet : The story of a city kid's survival out in the wild - By Ellen Murphy

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!?)

New! Morgan Academy Discussion Blog on connecting children to nature through literature.

Don't Forget to Check Out America's Wild Read ! Featured book is The Thunder Tree


Anonymous said...

Ellen thank you for your post about Hatchet. This is one of my favorite books and I have used this story in many tutoring sessions with my 3rd and 4th grade students because it is a fast paced and easy read. Many times I have read the book outloud to students in a dramatic manner outside and then ask them to write or draw a journal entry after each chapter we cover. You have also mentioned My Side of the Mountain and Lord of the Flies and I can see how this could be an amazing lesson in survival and connecting our students and ourselves as teachers to nature.

I do feel as though Hatchet can be emotional for students who have never been out in nature, especially children who are living in the city. Maybe this story will ignite the fire to get them to explore a little more with the help from their teachers and families. Do you have any ideas for these teachers in urban areas to get their students outside in relation to this story?

Ellen said...

That's always a difficult task! Many of the schools in our area have a fairly decent schoolyard surrounded by at least some trees, but in a truly urban situation, that might not be possible. On the other hand, urban areas often have museums that have natural exhibits. One idea might be to either visit the museum, focusing on the natural environment displays. It's certainly not a great alternative, but it might give kids the chance to see a grizzly bear display and imagine how they would measure up to something that is so large. Another idea might be to bring in berries as a taste test (being aware of allergies) or call on a local environmental organization that might have animal skins or specimens they would share.

Katie said...

This is hands down the best book to give a middle school-aged, male, reluctant reader along wiht many other Gary Paulsen books.

Ellen said...

I’ve been thinking about comparisons with Hatchet and the obvious one is My Side of the Mountain because both of the characters are in the wilderness alone, but a comparison of the book with Lord of the Flies seems more interesting. I confess I have only read LOTF once (last year!) and I actually found it to be rather ordinary. When it was published in 1954, it must have been a shocking book, but the years since have brought too many real-life tragedies that far surpass the shock-value for me. However, there are some common themes: boy vs. wild, rational vs. irrational actions, and a longing for civilization and rescue. In Hatchet, Brian had no challenges for his authority in making decisions, but also no support from others. He reacts to the situation at hand with his own limited knowledge and his willingness to try or die. But suppose there had been two boys in Hatchet. Does human nature insist that there always be a leader and a follower or would they have achieved a kind of communal peace while struggling for survival?

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Ellen! I really like to use your bear image with the teachers at my school concerning Hatchet and to get urban children connected with their "inner wildness." The berry idea is also a great idea maybe they could paint with berries as well and pretend to go on a hunt inside of the classroom. So many possibilites.

Ellen said...

The easiest book to compare to Hatchet (for me, anyway) is My Side of the Mountain. Both are about lone boys in the wild, but are they really alone? In MSOTM, Sam comes and goes in the wilderness and even has a visitor! How alone is he, really? Sam also has a support system of sorts--Frightful the falcon. Support may be one of the necessities for human sanity. Solitary confinement is an ultimate punishment and there are references to being “alone in the pit” throughout literature. Just spend a day alone with no other voices (people, TV, neighbors, etc) and you may begin to wish for someone to talk to. Spend more than a day that way and you may begin talking to yourself, out loud! Brian’s experiences in Hatchet are different from most adventure or coming-of-age literature as he is totally alone. In that solitude, was Brian happy? Of course, the story makes it quite clear that he struggled with survival, but there seem to be times when he is quite content. Creating fire is an accomplishment that boosts his confidence. Learning how to corral fish so the fishing is easier is also a boost to his ego, but is achieving success the same as happiness? I don't think so, but I think that he was satisfied to have learned how to live in the universe that he had landed in. In that way, I think Hatchet and MSOTM are quite similar.

Elizabeth said...

I think that children especially teenagers today need to have solitude without video games and television. It is the ventures alone in the natural world by themselves where they learn the most about themselves. Hatchet and My Side of the Mountain are stories that really paint the picture of how it used to be before we were "plugged in" so to speak.
Thank you for comparing these two books and I hope to use them with my own children when they come of age.

Ellen said...

I have to confess that this is not an original idea with me--I stumbled onto it while searching the net for something else. One way of helping students connect with nature in Hatchet is to have them write about what is happening in the book from the point of view of the animals. It's an interesting idea! How does the bear view competition for the berries? What does the skunk think about Brian's cave? It would seem to me that this could be used in any classroom--it would not matter if the school was in an urban or rural area.

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