Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet is a great story. This account of 13-year old Brian’s survival in the Canadian woods following the crash of a private plane and the death of the pilot is exciting, detailed, and engrossing. The story is great—but the way it is told is not.
Paulsen’s writing is incredibly repetitive. Events are described at least twice, sometimes three or four times:
The pilot had been talking, just a moment ago complaining of the pain. He had been talking.
Then the jolts had come.
The jolts that took the pilot back had come, and now Brian sat and there was a strange feeling of silence in the thrumming roar of the engine—a strange feeling of silence and being alone. Brian was stopped.
He was stopped. Inside he was stopped. He could not think past what he saw, what he felt. All was stopped. The very core of him, the very center of Brian Robeson was stopped and stricken with a white-flash of horror, a terror so intense that his breathing, his thinking, and nearly his heart had stopped.
Stopped. (pp. 11-12)
Brian Robeson’s parents are recently divorced, and he is on his way from his mom’s in New York to visit his father in Canada when the pilot of the bushplane has a heart attack and dies. Brian manages to crash-land the plane in a lake, pulling himself out of the sinking craft and swimming to shore with nothing but the clothes on his back and a hatchet (which his mother had given to him only hours before) fastened to his belt.
City kid that he is, Brian learns over the next seven and a half weeks to construct a shelter, find food, fashion spears and a bow and arrows using his hatchet, make fire, and catch small birds and fish. He survives encounters with a skunk, a bear, a moose, a wolf, and a porcupine, and (told in horrible detail), hordes of mosquitos:
. . . with the heat came clouds of insects—thick, swarming hordes of mosquitos that flocked to his body, made a living coat on his exposed skin, clogged his nostrils when he inhaled, poured into his mouth when he opened it to take a breath.
It was not possibly believable. Not this. He had come through the crash, but the insects were not possible. He coughed them up, spat them out, sneezed them out, closed his eyes and kept brushing his face, slapping and crushing them by the dozens, by the hundreds. But as soon as he cleared a place, as soon as he killed them, more came, thick, whining, buzzing masses of them. Mosquitos and some small black flies he had never seen before. All biting, chewing, taking from him. (pp. 34-35)
Brian makes mistakes and learns from them. As much as he has to forge his own survival in the Canadian wilderness, becoming physically more able and more attuned to his surroundings, he also has to strengthen his mental and emotional state, fortifying his resolve to keep going.
And he was, at that moment, almost overcome with self-pity. He was dirty and starving and bitten and hurt and lonely and ugly and afraid and so completely miserable that it was like being in a pit, a dark, deep pit with no way out. (p. 67)
He was not the same now—the Brian that stood and watched the wolves move away and nodded to them was completely changed. Time had come, time that he measured but didn’t care about; time had come into his life and moved out and left him different.
In measured time forty-seven days had passed since the crash. Forty-two days, he thought, since he had died and been born as the new Brian. (p. 117)
. . .
He was not the same. The plane passing changed him, the disappointment cut him down and made him new. He was not the same and would never be again like he had been. That was one of the true things, the new things. And the other one was that he would not die, he would not let death in again. (p.119)
I know of a lot of young people, mostly boys, who love this book. It seems to be a good choice for students with learning disabilities because it is very high interest, and the repetitive nature of the writing actually increases the likelihood of reading comprehension.
Personally, despite the fact that I enjoyed the story, I found Paulson's writing style incredibly tedious and a major deterrent. Lord of the Flies this ain’t. I had tried once or twice to read it and given up because of the awkwardness of the language, before finally making my way to the end. However, given this book’s popularity (OVER 2 MILLION COPIES SOLD, the cover boasts), and the number of awards it has won ( Newbery Honor, ALA Notable Book, Booklist Editors’ Choice, etc. etc.), my view is most definitely a minority opinion.