Monday, July 20, 2009

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen


The word came. I would have been destroyed and torn and smashed. Driven into the rocks and destroyed.

Luck, he thought. I have luck, I had good luck there. But he knew that he was wrong. If he had had good luck his parents wouldn't have divorced because of the Secret and he wouldn't have been flying with a pilot who had a heart attack and he wouldn't be here where he had to have good luck to keep from being destroyed.

If you keep walking back from good luck, he thought, you'll come to bad luck.

I wanted to read Hatchet because I was a big fan of Dogsong, which I thought stood out as one of the best pieces of YA fiction I'd ever read. Hatchet is cut much from the same cloth: it is essentially about a boy having to survive in the wilderness, and through that survival he comes to what I suppose you could call manhood, or at least a greater understanding of himself and his world.

In Dogsong, the main character was trying to recover a way of life lost to his Eskimo kin; here in Hatchet, survival is an unwelcome necessity: Brian Robeson is on his way to visit his father in the Canadian oil fields when the pilot of the single-engine plane carrying him has a heart attack and Brian is forced to land the plane in a lake. All Brian has with him is a hatchet, with his mother--quite fortuitously, I might add--gave to him for his birthday. He also carries with him, in the metaphorical sense, a Terrible Secret that actually turns out to be a Pretty Banal Secret: He saw his mom kissing another man, which he knows (but his father does not) is the reason for his parents' impending divorce.

That causes him some added discomfort at the lake, but soon it fades into the background as Brian is forced to learn how to survive on his own--he quickly figures out how to forage for berries, and through a long, painstaking, incremental process figures out how to use the hatchet to build shelter, start a fire, catch and cook food. By the end of his ordeal, which lasts for a couple of months, Brian is a tanned, fit survival expert. It's like Survivor Man for the tween set.

There was a mystical element to Dogsong that helped it transcend its genre; Hatchet could have used something similar. What Paulsen accomplishes--a gripping YA book almost completely without dialogue--is arresting enough, but it seems awfully plain in the other novel's shadow. Its most glaring flaw is the awful subplot about Brian's parents and their divorce, which is completely useless, wisely dropped early on, and never resolved--only briefly referenced in the postscript. Still, it has a pretty solid pedigree as a YA book; but as I told Brent, don't waste your time if you haven't read Dogsong, which is its superior in every way.


Nihil Novum said...

I guess my question is, are there any actual hatchets in DogSong?

Jim said...

Young Adult? We read this in my 5th grade class.

Jim said...

That said... Hatchet was way good. I remember reading the two follow-ups: The River, which is a direct sequel, and Brian's Winter which is a hypothetical sequel about what would have happened if Brian hadn't been rescued. Both were awesome. Both were assigned before 6th grade.

Sorry if saying the main character for a novel aimed at 10 year olds doesn't die at the end is a spoiler.

Anonymous said...

we are done with it