This is one of those rare books that succeeds on multiple levels. It's an adventure novel, a reflection on man's place in and innate love of the wilderness, and an honest exploration of an adolescent boy's attempt to deal with his parents's divorce. It's also a lyrical novel about growing up that uses survivalism as a metaphor for the difficulties of reaching adulthood.
Hatchet's plot is simple: 13-year-old Brian, en route to visit his father in a Cessna airplane, ends up lost in the Canadian wilderness when the plane crashes in a lake. He has his clothes, and the hatchet his mother gave him before his departure, and he must learn to use these to fight the elements, defend himself against wild animals, and hunt for food.
Gary Paulsen, himself an accomplished woodsman, is refreshingly unsentimental in his treatment of the vicissitudes and necessities of survivalist living. There are no tears shed when Brian fashions a bow and arrows and a fishing spear to kill animals for food, and while the creatures of the woods and mountains are depicted in all their majesty, they're never worshipped.
There is a somewhat odd interlude involving a wolf, in which Brian finds himself somewhat mystically identifying with the animal. But in the end we don't sense there's anything spiritual happening, simply that Brian, himself a hunter now, understands what it is to have to survive on the relative helplessness of animals lower down the food chain.
Brian's reflections about his parents's ugly divorce are very real and very identifiable. He both loves and hates his mother for her infidelity, and yet his feelings for his father are also somewhat ambivalent. Even those who have no direct experience with divorce will be able to see the realism of Paulsen's description, and empathize with Brian's anger, fear, doubt, and sorrow.
Books like this don't show up all that often. Paulsen bites off exactly as much as he can chew, and the result is masterful, compelling, and exciting (the way an adventure story should be). The prose is crisp and intelligent, accessible to a variety of reading levels, and as appealing to adults as to adolescents and teenagers.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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