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Book Review

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine. It is one of several books written about the character Brian Robeson. It was originally written as a stand-alone novel, but since then Gary Paulsen has written several sequels and an alternate ending.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements

Conclusion

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Only a month after his parents' divorce is final, 13-year-old Brian Robeson is strapped into the copilot's seat of a single-engine Cessna on his way to spend the summer with his father in the oil fields of northern Canada. On his belt, he has a hatchet, a gift from his mother. The pilot shows Brian how to steer the plane but then lapses into silence. When the pilot starts complaining of pain in his left shoulder and chest, Brian realizes he is having a heart attack. The pilot, now wrenched in uncontrollable spasms, moves to one side of the plane and collapses, unconscious. Brian continues to fly the plane as level as possible, attempting unsuccessfully to make radio contact, until the plane runs out of gas and the engine sputters and dies. He crash-lands in a wilderness lake, claws his way through the broken windshield of the sinking plane and swims ashore.

Despite scrapes and bruises, hordes of mosquitoes and his hunger, Brian can't stop thinking about the secret only he knows: His mother left his father because she was having an affair with another man. He remembers seeing them kissing in a station wagon while he was biking by the mall. Brian also realizes that because he flew the plane for hours, it may have crashed hundreds of miles from its charted course. He might not be found for a long time.

Fighting despair, self-pity and visions of hamburgers, Brian gorges himself on chokecherries and finds shelter in a shallow cave near the lake's edge. He is violently ill in the night and resolves never to overindulge again. The following night, a porcupine stumbles into the cave. Brian kicks it and throws the hatchet, which hits the cave wall in a shower of sparks. The porcupine shuffles off, and Brian is left to pull quills out of his calf.

The next day, spurred by a dream in which his friend and father both tell him to make fire, Brian builds a campfire by using the blunt edge of the hatchet to create sparks, which he catches in a nest of birch bark and fans into flame. The fire keeps away the mosquitoes. He reaps the benefits of another windfall when a snapping turtle lays eggs on the beach. He eats a few raw, and then buries the rest inside his shelter. He begins to work on a spear and bow to catch fish, but when a plane passes in the distance without seeing him, Brian loses all hope and tries to commit suicide by cutting his wrists with the hatchet. He fails, but when he wakes up the next morning and sees the smears of dried blood on his wrists, he feels like he is a new person, stronger than the old Brian.

He becomes more at home in the natural world. He catches fish with ease. He doesn't fear the wolves or the bears that share the forest with him. But one night, a skunk enters the cave as he sleeps, sprays him and eats his turtle eggs. Brian reinforces his shelter by weaving branches together to form a wall in front of the cave. He also builds a shelf to store food safely and uses rocks to section off a portion of the lake as a living larder. When he tires of fish, Brian learns how to kill birds and rabbits for food.

One morning, Brian kills a bird and is washing his hands in the lake when he is charged from behind by a female moose that grinds him into the mud on the bottom of the lake using her head and hooves. He barely escapes and goes back to the cave to rest and nurse his injured ribs. When he wakes up, Brian hears a far-off roar, a sound he doesn't recognize until it is too late. A tornado passes directly above his shelter, ripping off the front wall, scattering his handmade tools and sending hot coals into his clothing. Only the hatchet, still clipped to his belt, remains.

Morning reveals a more promising aspect of the tornado's impact: It churned up the water and changed the position of the plane so the tail sticks out above the surface of the water. Brian rebuilds his camp, then begins work on a raft that will hold the weight of the survival pack he knows is stored in the plane. Pushing the raft in front of him, Brian swims out to the plane. He ties the raft to the tail of the plane with a makeshift rope made of strips of cloth cut from his windbreaker. There are no visible openings, so Brian cuts open the aluminum shell with his hatchet, and wriggles inside. He has to dive for the survival pack, which is jammed against the front seats. When he finally succeeds in tearing it loose, he is about to swim to the surface when he sees the pilot's head, now almost a skull, in the water. Brian vomits and barely makes it to the surface.

Back at his shelter, Brian unpacks the contents of the bag. Among other supplies, he finds food, a gun and an emergency transmitter that appears to have been ruined in the crash. He decides to celebrate and begins rehydrating a freeze-dried meal and cooking it over the fire, which he lights using a butane lighter from the pack. Just as the meal is ready, a small plane lands on the lake and glides across the water to the beach where Brian is sitting in front of his shelter. The pilot explains that he received the signal from the emergency transmitter that Brian had inadvertently left on.

In a brief epilogue, Brian's parents do not get back together, but Brian is forever changed by his experiences at the lake. He never tells his father why his mother wanted the divorce.

Christian Beliefs

None

Other Belief Systems

Brian feels that his circumstances depend on luck (or the lack thereof) and that he can only depend on himself. After the moose charges him and the tornado destroys everything he has worked to build, Brian feels that a giant coin has been flipped and he is the loser.

Brian wants to say something in honor of the dead pilot, but he can't think of any religious words.

Authority Roles

Brian's mother divorces his father because she is secretly seeing another man. She continues to behave tenderly toward Brian but never tells Brian or her husband the true reason for ending her marriage. Brian feels hatred toward her but doesn't confront her or tell his father about the affair. Brian also hates lawyers and judges because of their roles in the divorce.

Brian is motivated to action by remembering his English teacher, Mr. Perpich, who told his students that the most valuable asset they have is themselves.

Profanity/Violence

God's name is misused several times. There is one use of d--n. Brian crash-lands in a wilderness lake, claws his way through the broken windshield of the sinking plane and swims ashore. When a plane passes in the distance without seeing him, Brian loses all hope and tries to commit suicide by cutting his wrists with the hatchet. One morning, Brian kills a bird and is washing his hands in the lake when he is charged from behind by a female moose that grinds him into the mud on the bottom of the lake using her head and hooves. He barely escapes. A tornado passes directly above his shelter, ripping off the front wall, scattering his handmade tools and sending hot coals into his clothing. Brian sees the pilot's head when it's a skull in the water.

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Brian remembers seeing his mother passionately kiss a blond man when they were in a station wagon.

Discussion Topics

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Additional Comments/Notes

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Episode Reviews

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

12 and up

Author

Gary Paulsen

Cast

Director

Distributor

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division

Released

On Video

Year Published

1987

Awards

Newberry Award Honor, 1988; Massachusetts Children’s Book Award, 1995; many others

Reviewer

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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