Gary Paulson’s Hatchet is set in Hampton, New York, but mainly in the north Canadian forests, in particular a region known as the Canadian Shield. The main characters of the novel are Brian Robeson, the protagonist, a thirteen year old boy; his parents; and two pilots, one of whom flies Brian into north Canada before giving up the ghost at the controls, and the second pilot who rescues the young boy stranded in the wilderness.
The main events of the novel revolve around Brian, who travels by airplane, Cessna 406, from his hometown, Hampton, New York, to visit his father who is working as a mechanical engineer in a Canadian oil field.
The young boy’s parents are divorced, and this is the first summer that Brian is going to spend with his father after the divorce. Brian travels as a single passenger in the airplane, before the pilot of the plane dies of a heart attack leaving the young boy to crash land the airplane all by himself.
The plane lands in an isolated lake somewhere in the north Canadian forests. And, Brian possesses nothing to face the tragedy, except a hatchet that his mother had presented to him before his departure. The hatchet thus becomes the boy’s tool for survival in the wilderness. He must figure out how to make fire by striking the hatchet’s blade against a rock. He must also figure out what to eat in order to survive. Moreover, he must deal with unusual circumstances such as the presence of a bear, a porcupine, a moose, a skunk, in addition to a tornado.
Eventually, the boy learns to hunt and fish after making special tools for himself. The events proving Brian’s ability to manage himself in the wilderness are very important in the novel. The last major event occurs after a violent storm that hits the forest and tosses the wreckage of the airplane to the land surface. The teenager manages to break into the airplane to recover the survival pack. He finds a transmitter in the pack, which, upon activation, connects him to a pilot who finally comes to rescue him in an airplane.
The main conflict in the novel is between Brian, the protagonist, and nature, the antagonist. The young boy must find a way to overcome the unusual circumstances he finds himself in. He must struggle against threats posed by wild animals as well as natural disasters. Similarly, he must fight against his own natural tendency to give up in the face of the difficulties that confront him. Another conflict presented in Hatchet is between Brian’s natural, emotional weakness and the strength that he needs to gain emotional freedom.
The boy knows a Secret about his mother that had led to his parents’ divorce. Time and again the Secret confronts him with emotional distress. Yet, Brian must learn to let go of the distress and face the challenge of accepting his circumstances as they are. The novel thus deals with maturity – the theme of growing up from boyhood to manhood. Brian has no human being to rely on at the time that he is stranded in the wilderness. Yet, he must face all sorts of dangers to find his way out of his troubles, both emotional and physical.
The major strength of the novel is that Brian succeeds despite all odds, using his intelligence as best as possible. He finds his way out. Hence, his story becomes a lesson for all teenagers who may or may not face the kinds of challenges that Brian faces. The story is also recommended for young readers of fifth and sixth grades, who are sure to be inspired by Brian’s spirit of strength and endurance. As a matter of fact, even adults may be able to remind themselves about the resilient, surviving spirit of humanity by reading Hatchet. Thus, the novel may be recommended for all readers.