Gary Paulsen - Published 1987

Gary Paulsen was born May 17, 1939 in Minneapolis, Minnesota shortly after his father, a career-army officer, left for duty in war-torn Europe. He spent the years of World War II partly with his mother in Chicago (who worked in a munitions factory) and partly with relatives in Minnesota. Paulsen did not meet his father until 1946 when he and his mother were reunited with his father in the Philippines. He spent his adolescence as an 'army brat,' moving frequently, staying no longer than five months in any school, and often spent long periods with relatives such as a grandmother or an aunt.
Paulsen has summed up his childhood thus: 'I didn't have a home life; frankly, my parents were drunks.' Indeed, Father Water, Mother Woods (1994), a series of essays about hunting and fishing in the North woods as a child, relates how he used these activities as a substitute father and mother. His experience as a wandering self-reliant child set a pattern for his life.

In 1957 Paulsen entered Bemidji College but only stayed a year before joining the army. Serving until 1962, he attained rank of sergeant and took extension courses until he accrued enough credits to become an engineer. During the next four years, Paulsen worked at a variety of jobs: field engineer, associate editor of a men's magazine, even a movie extra in Hollywood. In 1966 he published his first book, The Special War, a nonfiction work based on interviews with servicemen returning from Vietnam. Paulsen continued a peripatetic career during the following decade as teacher, director, farmer, rancher, truck driver, trapper, professional archer, migrant farm worker, singer, and sailor. In 1976 he resumed his education at the University of Colorado and concentrated on writing; in this period he became one of the country's most prolific writers, publishing over 200 articles and more than three-dozen books, including career guides, sports, and 'how-to' books. Unfortunately, his work did not generate much financial profit; a series of 'business reverses' with publishers in Colorado left him 'totally broke and then minus broke.'

A year later Paulsen went to Minnesota, one of his youthful homes, because he knew he could survive by gardening for food and burning firewood for fuel. Abandoning writing for a while, he lived in poverty, typically earning only $2,300 a year by trapping fur-bearing animals for the state.

The year 1983 brought two significant changes in Paulsen's life: a new direction in writing and an invigorating passion, sled-dog racing. Through the earlier gift of a ramshackle sled and a few dogs to help him trap game, he became interested in running the Iditarod, the great Alaskan dog sled race; his experiences with sled dogs and races transformed him. One alteration was that he was motivated to resume writing, concentrating on subjects that interested him—the wilderness, dogs, sledding, surviving off the land—instead of the category novels and nonfiction he wrote formerly. He began composing in longhand every day (although he now uses a computer), in the kennel or by the campfire while the dogs rested. Dogsong, Hatchet, and several other books were written in this way. The same year Paulsen began to write for Richard Jackson, then at Bradbury Press, and developed a new focus: young adult fiction.

Since the publication of Dancing Carl in 1983, Paulsen's career has flourished. He has written numerous, successful books about the subjects that he knows the best: the wilderness, dogs, sledding, surviving off the land. A majority have strong autobiographical elements. Three of Paulsen's novels, Dogsong, The Winter Room, and Hatchet, are Newbery Honor Books; many of his other works have won various local and national awards. Paulsen is now successful enough to own a ranch in New Mexico (where he lives with his wife Ruth Wright Paulsen, photographer and artist) and maintain residences in several states. Paulsen wears his success lightly, believing that when people are living simply they really have what they need. He has decided he was as happy in poverty as he is now in affluence.

A popular speaker on the bookstore, library, and school lecture circuit, Paulsen nonetheless chafes at the restraints the demands of book promotions puts on his time. Although a heart condition forced him to give up running the Iditarod (and the as many as ninety-one dogs he kept), the lifelong adventurer, in his free time, pushes his own physical limits. One summer he took a team of horses up to 12,000 feet and did pack trips for a week; another summer he rode a Harley-Davidson motorcycle to Alaska.

Although survivalist themes dominate his novels of the last decade, recently he has tried historical and comic fiction also. Paulsen's popularity with adolescent readers results from their mutual identification. He frankly speaks his views on adults and children: 'adults stink' and have 'polluted the earth. . . . Kids haven't done that.' Like Peter Pan, he wants never to grow up or old: 'I kind of wish I wasn't an adult.'


In the tradition of Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson, Hatchet is a story of individual survival against great odds. It tells how a routine journey turned into a life-threatening and life-changing experience. The central character, thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson (whose name echoes his literary ancestry), is stranded alone at a lake deep in the Canadian wilderness for fifty-four days. A small plane, carrying Brian from his mother's home in Hampton, New York, to the oil fields in Canada where his father works, crashes after the pilot dies in flight from a heart attack.

From the moment that Brian begins piloting the Cessna 406 and guides it to a lucky crash-landing in the water, the odds against him are immense. Before he died the pilot fortuitously let Brian experience the controls and taught him enough to keep the plane from a fatal spin or stall. Brian is a city boy, unused to the woods, who emerges from the wreckage with only one tool, a hatchet. He is injured in the crash so that his initial search for food is hampered by pain. He has no idea where he is located and no means of contacting the outside world. His isolation is spiritual as well as physical because his parents have divorced only a month before and because Brian bears a terrible secret about his mother's responsibility for the break up. Possessing the Secret has alienated Brian from his mother, yet he feels guilty about the distance he cannot help but put between them.

Brian's physical and emotional predicaments seem hopeless. Five days after the crash, the old Brian dies in a moment of despair. Over the next forty-nine days a new Brian is born.


Two settings predominate: the sky and the wilderness. The first three chapters occur as the plane is airborne; the remaining seventeen take place in the wilderness around the L-shaped lake where the plane crashes. Both landscapes are vast stages that over-whelm the presence of one small human being. Both landscapes are beautiful to the observer yet dangerous to someone unprepared or untrained.

The wilderness is neither a garden nor a wasteland. Nature will not provide Brian with sustenance free of labor, but neither will it make impossible his search for food and shelter. The natural landscape is a storehouse of food and tools waiting to be discovered and unlocked. The lake is lovely to look at and abounds with aquatic life. It is surrounded by dense green forest that covers hilly terrain; it teems with a variety of birds and animals. Paulsen's wilderness is a realistic one filled with both the beauty of a sunset tinting lake waters golden and the agony of relentless swarms of hungry mosquitos.

One rocky ledge at lake side makes a natural lookout tower and provides shelter. This ledge becomes Brian's home, where a simple lean-to can protect him against most of the elements. Here he discovers and nurtures fire. Here he stows his slowly accumulating inventory of food, tools, and supplies. Here he sleeps and wrestles with dreams of danger, survival, and the Secret.


Brian is the only active character in the story. Two pilots appear briefly (one whose death strands Brian and one who rescues him) at the beginning and end of the novel. Brian's parents are mentioned frequently but are present only when their son remembers them.

Brian is a typical adolescent at the start of the novel. He is unremarkable physically and intellectually. What he knows of life comes from attending school, playing with friends, watching television, going to the movies, reading magazines, and listening to his parents. He is also typical because his parents, like a large number of married couples in the 1980s and 1990s, are divorced. The one untypical thing about him is his possession of the Secret, the awareness of his mother's lover. Brian saw them kiss in a car parked at the mall.

Yet Brian proves surprisingly resilient in the wilderness. Having to bear the Secret has made him unexpectedly self-reliant. From books, television shows, and games, he recalls tidbits of information about finding food, building shelter, or understanding animal behavior. They are his reference volumes for dealing with the present and the unexpected. He reinvents ways to accomplish the most routine, unconscious tasks such as telling time and marking days. From parents and teachers he remembers advice and motivational slogans: 'You are the best asset you have.' Although Brian's predicament seems overwhelming—he is alone, without any supplies except a hatchet, lost where rescuers will not think to look, and inexperienced at outdoor life—Brian has one advantage. He can observe and learn.

Learning by experience is not easy, but it is the way Nature teaches. It occasionally means suffering, as when Brian gets sick after eating too many gut cherries. It also means realizing the implications of little things: Brian discovers how to ignite fire when the hatchet makes sparks against rock. It means, too, recognizing clues: Brian follows the birds to the raspberry patch. Additionally, learning means knowing that opportunities, even unpleasant ones, must be seized: Brian forces himself to enter the claustrophobic interior of the sunken plane to get the survival kit. Modern urban life allows people to separate thought and sensation; survival in the wilderness demands that they become one. Brian realizes that 'so much of all living was patience and thinking.'

The hatchet is emblematic of this reality. Literally it is the tool which enables him to survive; in Brian's hand it cuts, it carves, it pounds, it makes sparks. Psychologically it is a bond to his mother. She gave him the tool just before he left in unspoken, token compensation for the pain of the divorce. She gives it, however, with love and in acknowledgement of Brian's maturity. It is a gift to a man, not to a boy. Symbolically, the hatchet is the hurtful strength of the Secret. The reality of adulthood can be painful but learning to bear it creates the endurance and will to bear worse.


Paulsen employs the archetypal situation of romantic fiction: place an individual alone in a vast natural landscape in order to study his character. Because the settings of sky (experienced from a small plane) and wilderness (experienced without camping gear or a Winnebago) are not familiar to most contemporary readers, Paulsen is careful to record the physical sensations of the natural world—its sounds, sights, smell, tastes, and feel.

Three stylistic devices make the narrative move quickly. Paulsen frequently uses elliptical sentences and sentence fragments to record Brian's impressions and thoughts. Numerous single sentence paragraphs—even single word paragraphs—set a fast pace for readers and emphasize dramatic moments in the plot or important insights by Brian. Finally, Paulsen often uses repetition of a key word or phrase to linger momentarily and intensify an impression. Shortened and repetitive expressions often express Brian's 'short thoughts,' the unpleasant memories or images (like that of the pilot's body in the lake) which he must repress in order to cope.

Thus, Paulsen concentrates on Brian as the central intelligence through whose ideas, reactions, fears, hopes, and musings the reader can sense as well as understand the experience. In times of inactivity Brian is a character intensely wrapped up in himself. In moments of crisis he becomes dislocated. Sometimes he grows detached and seems to observe himself from a distance. At other times stress makes him teeter between hallucination and reality. Such moments usually result in epiphanies (how to use the hatchet to start fire, why the rescue plane did not see him) that are turning points in the story.


Brian's physical ordeal is realistically described. He experiences injury, fright, and danger. He witnesses the death of the pilot. He is almost killed several times. He learns to eat foods that normally would disgust him. Paulsen does not write in a gratuitously gruesome detail about these matters, but he does not shy away from mentioning the hard, unpleasant truths of surviving without the amenities and protections of civilized life.

Brian's emotional ordeal is also realistically described. The thought of his parents' recent divorce haunts him and evokes conflicting feelings in him. He is alternately angry and confused; he sometimes judges them harshly and blames them for beginning the chain of events that led him to being lost. Brian's awareness of the Secret, his mother's relationship with the 'blond hair man,' causes him special grief. The fact that he witnessed his mother and lover in an embrace initiates him into a knowledge of adult sexuality that he ideally ought not have to bear at his age.

Paulsen's depiction of Brian's emotional struggle is sympathetic rather than sensational. The reader feels the poignancy of Brian's too rapid transition from boyhood to manhood. The physical ordeal and emotional ordeal are parallel struggles for Brian. Without both, the novel would be less compelling and less insightful about a youth's coming-of-age in contemporary society.


1. Is the simple title effective at stimulating interest and identifying the central theme?

2. Brian's invents names for things that are unfamiliar to him: 'gut cherries,' 'spearwood,' 'foolbirds.' How does he form these names? Do people generally name things in this way?

3. How do Brian's dreams help him survive? What other sources of inspiration does he have?

4. Why is fire referred to as 'a friend and a guard'?

5. Does Brian's attitude or feelings about his parents change during his ordeal?

6. Consider Brian's interaction with animals like the bear, porcupine, wolves, and moose. Is the law of Nature the grim reality of kill or be killed, eat or be eaten?

7. The fatal flight is Brian's first trip in an airplane. How does Paulsen make credible Brian's ability to control the aircraft?

8. The climax of the novel builds upon three ordeals: the moose attack, the tornado, and the dive to the sunken airplane. Which is most difficult for Brian?

9. Which phrase best describes the 'new Brian' who emerges from the ordeal: a Brian with greater self-respect, or Brian with greater self-esteem? A Brian with greater self-reliance?

10. Brian is never able to tell his father of the Secret. Why? Does this failure hint that once back in his familiar world, the 'old Brian' will replace the 'new Brian'?


1. Read Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. Compare Robinson and Brian in one or more of the following ways:

a. their reactions to the environments that isolate them;

b. their ingenuity in learning to use resources at hand; and

c. their spiritual struggles.

2. The epilogue reports that journalists were intensely interested in Brian's experience after his return. Write a feature story about Brian for your local newspaper or an adolescent magazine like Boy's Life.

3. The search for Brian ends after a month because he is believed dead. Imagine you are his mother or father and keep a diary of your reactions during the search.

4. Read an encyclopedia entry, a magazine article, or a government document on wilderness survival. How do Brian's reactions and efforts compare with the advice of professionals?

5. Paulsen has said that 'Achievements are nothing, but the journey is everything.' Apply this principle to Brian's experience.

6. Read The River which is the sequel to Hatchet. Report on the differences between and similarities of Brian's next adventure and Hatchet.

7. Once Brian retrieves the transmitter from the sunken plane, his rescue happens quickly and the novel ends soon after. Look up the term 'deus ex machina' in a literary dictionary or encyclopedia. Is the device of the transmitter an example of a 'deus ex machina'?

8. Tom Engelhardt writes in his review of the novel that 'Paulsen skirts close to basic screen horror.' List the characteristics of contemporary horror films popular with adolescents, and determine how many are present in Hatchet.

9. Read Paulsen's Harris and Me whose protagonists have many adventures with farm animals. Compare their relationship with barnyard creatures to Brian's relationship with wilderness animals.


American School Publishers produced a videocassette version of Hatchet in 1990. Producer/director Cynthia Cowens's version uses a script employing Paulsen's original language but heavily edits the story line; it is about 10% of the original. It is narrated by an adult male voice, but an adolescent male recites Brian's words and thoughts. Visuals are provided by still pictures by Frank Mayo whose vivid oil colors capture the dramatic, intense spirit of Brian's struggle to survive. Cowens's version keeps all the essential elements of the original, although it plays down Brian's anguish over his parents' divorce and the Secret.

In 1991, Paulsen wrote a sequel to Hatchet. Prompted by popular demand ('I received literally thousands of letters from readers, interested in Brian . . .') and personal involvement ('my personal belief that Brian was not . . . done . . .'), Paulsen published The River. This story tells how Brian is recruited by a school that teaches survival skills. He is dropped into another wilderness with an instructor who hopes to learn by observing Brian's physical and mental reactions. When a bolt of lightning knocks his companion unconscious, Brian must construct a raft for a race down river against time. The book received mixed reviews. Some found it a typical sequel that could never match the inventiveness and surprise of the original. Others found it an exciting story that showed Brian's maturity and woodcraft in action.

Tracker (1984) is not about survival, but it also tells of a young man who learns the wisdom of the wilderness. John Borne has always hunted with his grandfather, Clay, until the old man is stricken with cancer. Now hunting alone and thinking about his grandfather's fate, John has a sudden appreciation of life. He pursues a doe, not to kill her, but only to touch her. His accomplishment is a final gift to his grandfather who says, 'That's something I'll just take with me.'

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