Book Review: Hatchet by Gary Paulsen – 5 stars

I’m not sure how I’ve gotten so far in my life without reading this book, but I was definitely missing out. My son read this one for school and really enjoyed it so I decided to give it a spin! I was really glad I did. Written as a Middle Grade read, I found this book incredibly appealing as an adult: it not only includes adventure and suspense, it examines the human spirit and what it takes to survive in difficult circumstnaces. That’s a topic that anyone can enjoy reading about!

Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen, was published in 1987 and was awarded the Newbery at that time. It’s definitely a classic (How are things that were populat when I was in school now considered classics? Ugh!) and is encouraged reading in classrooms across the country. It explores the story of 13-year old Brian Robeson whose parents have recently divorced. Robeson is flying on a private, prop plane from his mother’s to his father’s house in Canada when the pilot of the plane has a heart attack and dies. The plane crashes and Brian is left alone, in the Canadian woods with the clothes on his back and a hatchet that his mother gifted to him right before take-off.

Robeson experiences the entire range of feelings that one would expect if stranded alone in the woods and Paulsen does an amazing job of keeping the reader attuned to his thoughts and feelings. Robeson experiences a number of trials as he endeavors to stay alive and healthy. Paulsen peppers the story with just enough action that the book reads like an adventure story while actually being more of a study of human capabilities and endurance.

While the tirals that Robeson is forced to face are amazing…they remain believable. It would have been easy for Paulsen to veer off into fantastical feats for a 13-year old boy. He doesn’t, however, and we see how very much Robeson struggles to find ways to survive. Even the fact that he is stranded in the woods with a hatchet doesn’t seem contrived. Robeson is protrayed as an intelligent and resourceful kid but is required to call up every one of his mental, physical and emotional resources to endure the challenges that come up in the woods.

Robeson is also not a ‘perfect’ character. He makes plenty of mistakes and experience deep and powerful shame, loneliness and despair. Paulsen allows his reader to feel the degree to which Robeson’s faith is tested while driving home the point that, even though he is only a child, he remains capable, resilient and strong! I was further impressed that Paulsen draws Robeson in such a way that he is appealing for both boys and girls. Robeson’s story of survival is one of being human…not necessarily being a ‘tough guy’ or demonstraing uber-masculinity!

I was somewhat concerned that the book’s ending would be a disappointment for me. A last-minute, unbelievable rescue and tidy happy ending would have really disenchanted me. Instead, however, Paulsen finds an ending for Robeson that feels genuine and believable…it’s hopeful without being sappy. I didn’t realize, upon my initial reading of the book, that it is based upon a true story…so I guess I should have known that actual reality would provide a satisfactory story ending of its own.

Paulsen is an incredible writer…Robeson’s surroundings are palpable – from the gaseous smells in the plane as the pilot becomes ill to the sights, sounds and smells of the wilderness, Paulsen clearly knows his setting and paints it beautifully for the reader. He also has a gift for character: as I mentioned above, Robeson is real – he experiences both failure and triumph and responds to each in ways that are authentic and relatable. As a book that centers almost exclusively on one character, Hatchet provides a picture of that character that contains both depth and relevance for the reader.

I loved Hatchet, as did my 11-year old son. It’s a slender volume at only 220 pages and a fast read. There’s much to love including an afterward that gives some insight into the true story upon which the tale is based. Perhaps even better news: Hatchet is part of a series so, if you love it as much as we did, you can immediately embark upon reading such titles as The River, Brian’s Winter, Brian’s Return and Brian’s Hunt. Paulsen is also a prolific writer…the other books (such as DogSong, Woods Runner, Winter Dance and the like) that he has written will provide lots of fodder for young and mature readers who enjoy Hatchet’s focus and style.

To get your copy of Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, please click the link below:

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