Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Hatchet:a book about how much luck it takes to not die

I had been told that Hatchet by Gary Paulsen had helped get kids into reading. I’d never heard of it myself but I see it won a Newberry Honor in 1988. Which, looking up how the Newberry award works, means it was actually the runner-up. Still, good show.

Okay. Here’s the elevator pitch. 13-year-old Brian Robeson, after surviving a plane crash, has to learn how to survive on his own in the Canadian wilderness. Oh, the book is called Hatchet because his only tool is a hatchet his divorced mom gave him.

If there is one word I would use to describe Hatchet, it is visceral. The book repeatedly pulls no punches about how much dumb luck Brian needs to just not be dead. Mosquitos, sunburn, starvation, food poisoning, a moose attack, Brian goes through a lot of lovingly detailed trauma.

I want to call particular attention to the pilot’s heart attack at the beginning of the book. It’s more graphic than I’d expect from a book for grown ups. For a book aimed at kids, it’s downright shocking.

I felt like Paulsen looked at all the romantic survival stories from the Coral Island to My Side of the Mountain and said that it was all rubbish. It seemed to me like he shucked all the fantasy out of the idea and showed how awful it would be. 

Mind you, I don’t think Paulsen himself would agree with me. From what I can tell, reading about him after I finished the book, he was a luddite. Well, if you use the death of the author school of thought, the reader is allowed to put their own spin on a work.

Regardless, the book does a good job giving you a picture of a teenager trying very hard not to die. And I’d like to think that no one is enough of a sociopath not to find that compelling. (Oh, I know that’s not the case. But I’d like to think it is)

Hatchet is a short read and, as far as the language is concerned, is easy to read.  But it is successfully intense.

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