Remembering Gary Paulsen’s ‘Hatchet’ — The Best Nature Book For Teens

The Gary Paulsen classic was a publishing phenomenon in the 1980s. It's less popular today, but no less affecting.

GETTY / Drew Willis/Simon & Schuster

Author Gary Paulsen has died at the age of 82-years-old. He was the author of more than 200 books, including the new 2021 book How to Train Your Dad. Paulsen loved the outdoors and had a particular fascination with dog-sledding, which inspired the memoirs Woodsong and Winterdance. But, for many of us growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, Paulsen was known best as the author of the YA novel Hatchet; a tale of thrilling survival that stayed with generations of tweens and teens forever. Here’s author Joshua David Stein‘s tribute to Hatchet and why, after four decades, it’s still the greatest nature book for tweens.

I remember reading Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet for the first time in 1992. I was 11 and Hatchet, which was a Newbery Medal honoree in 1988, was five. The book was a global phenomenon on the verge of classic status. I was not, but I knew a good thing when I read one. I carried it around for weeks. Cracking it again decades later, I was struck by my own sentimentality about the novel. It was visceral and immediate — like a memory of a middle school open-mouth kiss. Hatchet, it turned out, had buried itself deep in my psyche.

Paulsen’s story stuck with me in part because it was, at the time I first picked it up, the darkest, deepest book I’d ever read. It’s an easy read, but also harrowing and relentless. It was, I thought at the time, some heavy shit. Compared to the other books I was working my way through — The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, The Boxcar Children, The Westing Game Hatchet was terrifyingly real. Twenty-five years later, after I’ve lived some realness of my own, I was worried it might not hold up. It’s the sort of book that seems like it wouldn’t hold up.

In case you’ve forgotten, the hero of Hatchet is a 13-year-old boy named Brian Robeson. Brian’s parents are divorcing in the wake of his mother having an affair. The story opens with Brian in a Cessna 406, a twin-propeller bush-plane, with an unnamed middle-aged pilot, on the way to Canada’s northern woods, where Brian’s father works as an engineer. In quick order, the pilot farts a lot, has a heart attack and, jerking the plane wildly in his paroxysms, dies. Brian, alone and incommunicado in the cockpit, drifts for hours before, somewhat surprisingly, crash landing in a lake. This all happens in the first three chapters, the death unfolds with brutal, stately pacing. The rest of the book, only 190 pages or so depending on the edition, documents Brian’s fight for survival in the woods alone.

The blank terror of a 13-year-old boy lost in the woods is gradually replaced by Brian’s resolve and problem-solving skills. Brian learns how to make a rudimentary shelter, then fire, then spear, then bow-and-arrow. He’s a dirty autodidact, undaunted — in fact spurred on by — by his loneliness. Each skill means another day he doesn’t die from exposure or starvation.

That part I pretty much remembered accurately. What I didn’t remember was the Secret. The Secret is that Brian saw his mother and another man — “short blond hair, the man had. Wearing some kind of white pullover tennis shirt” — kissing in a strange station wagon before his parents split. Apart from the hatchet, which his mother gave to him just before he left, this memory is the thing Brian clings to most ardently. He picks at it like a scab. If the titular hatchet is a tool of survival, the Secret is a seed of destruction. Brian feels tremendous guilt that he never told his father what he had seen. It’s strange I blocked this resonant undercurrent from my experience since, thinking about it now, I was then fresh from the pain of my own parents’ breakup.

Revisiting Hatchet now, there are three things that stick out. That shock of darkness and realness I felt when I read it the first time is even more pronounced now, especially with two kids of my own. I am steeped in the contemporary oeuvre of young adult fiction. Much of it leans hard toward fantasy. My kids are growing up on Hogwarts and Harry Potter. Hatchet, on the other hand, is just blunt and brutal. It’s totally stripped down, austere. This is Knut Hamsun for kiddies. There are no villains and little action, save for the initial crash and a few run-ins with wildlife. Instead, all the outward drama is simply survival. Only time and the elements are the enemy. But Brian doesn’t anthropomorphize. The world around him isn’t actively trying to kill him, it’s just indifferent to his survival.

Secondly, Paulsen, by all accounts a strange gruff man, is a master of language. Reading today’s YA novels, I’m taken perhaps by their plot, by the breadth of characters and constant action but the language is utterly featureless. It tells the story but doesn’t show it. In Hatchet however, Paulsen relies on a strange sort of repetitious sentence structure, as if this is the story Brian is telling himself to survive. It’s a little claustrophobic, a little desperate as if each sentence burrows just a bit deeper into the story. Here he is, hungry: “He had to eat. He was weak with it again, down with the hunger ,and he had to eat.” Or just before his Prometheus moment: “All right, all right I see the fire but so what? I don’t have a fire I know about fire. I know I need a fire. I know that. “

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Hatchet reads like a novel that needed to be written. Maybe I missed it the first time around because I was too young to understand the nature of what I was reading. Paulsen admits, in the introduction to the 30th anniversary edition where he confessed that the book “came from the darkest part of my childhood” and remembers an abysmal family situation. “When things with my folks got worse — and they always got worse — the screaming got loud enough to be heard down behind the furnace, and I had no one to turn to and nowhere else to go, I slipped into the woods near where I lived,” the author writes. And it’s easy to see how that desperation, the sense of being at once empowered as an individually and deeply unmoored, informs the book, which is about survival of all kinds.

At times, Hatchet seems like a letter sent from older Paulsen to younger Paulsen, a fictive note of encouragement wrapped around a sharp-edged emotional tool. To open the book again is to remember that childhood is a gauntlet and that surviving it is a profound achievement. The book more than holds up with time and it will be waiting for my boys when they need it.