In the first chapter of Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, 13-year-old Brian is the only passenger in a single engine plane when the pilot has a heart attack and dies. 7000 feet above the wilderness and wildly off course, he eventually crashes into a lake..and must find a way to survive. On his own. Without food or shelter.
Believe it or not, the stakes only get higher from there. Let’s begin! (Beware spoilers, as usual.)
Wendy: I’m a big fan of survival and naturalistic stories, having loved Sign of the Beaver and The Yearling and Where the Red Fern Grows as a kid. But somehow this one passed me by, so I’m glad Kim suggested it for our classics series.
Kim: This was one of the few offerings in my 5th grade classroom’s “library” that actually interested me, and holy hell did little Kim devour it. I like survival fiction because of this book. Going into this re-read I really didn’t remember much of anything at all plot wise, though. Well, other than that one scene. You know the scene.
Layla: I loved Hatchet as a kid, so I actually remembered most of this book fairly well (and could spot danger coming around the corner before Brian did, which made me feel smart but also constantly terrified). And actually, that was my main feeling while reading this book: terror. Also a tiny bit of incredulity, because while I was happy to believe as a thirteen year-old that surviving in the Canadian wilderness for fifty-some odd days with only a hatchet was possible, as an adult … well, I believe Brian did it, but I have no faith that I could do it. Whereas as a teen reader, I thought this was like a primer or something.
Wendy: A couple of years ago, I was sick for about two months with a wretched flu, and I binged a bunch of Survivor episodes on Netflix. I love anything that pits human beings against nature–the struggle to survive with limited resources and knowledge is such a primal one that appeals to the savage beast in me. Mostly because I know I would be the first one to trip over a tree root and get set upon by a pack of wolves or something, so it’s a bit of wish fulfillment. I would make an excellent consultant, though. From the safety of my couch.
Kim: My main feeling was dread. Just like, oh god, what untold horror is going to come next. I don’t know that 11-year-old me ever reflected on my survival chances but I can tell you that now-me knows I would be dead so fast left to my own devices in the wilderness. I am the most squeamish person and also a weakling. When Brian finally gets a fool-bird and he’s dressing it and the guts just fall out? No thank you. I guess I’ll just starve down by that lake.
Layla: Augh, yes! I mean, I like to think I wouldn’t starve down by that lake, but I don’t know how great I’d be at killing fool-birds either. Which is basically to say that I am still kind of in awe at how resourceful Brian is. I know that he needs to be, but still. I think about myself, as always! Would I have been able to figure out how to make a nest for fire, or would I have given up? (I think I would have given up; I kept on being worried he was going to chip his hatchet, and then where would he be?) Anyway, what did you all think was Brian’s most impressive feat of survival? I think for me it’s that he manages to not get killed by all those animals. It seems like his instincts shift while he’s out there (he senses the bears, the wolves, etc). One thing I was disappointed by: he never uses the porcupine quills! I totally expected those to be repurposed in some way.
Layla: Yes! I thought they would be used as a weapon of some kind. For stabbing fish or something. I don’t know, I don’t fish.
Kim: I am realistic about my fate. I would probably have given up. Do keep in mind that my Hunger Games strategy is to just step off the pedestal before the starting gun. Come on. I know my chances. They’d be ZIL.
Personally, I was excited when Brian survived the moose attack. True story, I once had a close encounter with a moose up in the Pocono mountains as a small child. I escaped unscathed, however I have been left with a lifelong terrifying fear of moose.
Wendy: The animal parts definitely seemed the most menacing, because they are both unpredictable and somehow personal at the same time. I mean, the tornado is the most unpredictable, but it’s such a massive force of nature that it’s clearly beyond his control. But confronting a beast one on one is somehow more frightening, because it feels like there should be something you might be able to do, but often you’re still on the losing end because you’re so much smaller or more defenseless. (Moose encounter must’ve been so scary! I can attest to skunk stink being debilitating, too–Mr. Darling once had an unfortunate late-night encounter, and he is still bitter about his striped nemesis.)
I think I’m mostly impressed that Brian had the presence of mind and the instinct to know what he should do. After a few days of disorientation, he began thinking on his feet pretty quickly, and adapting to his circumstances and anticipating need. He also learned from his mistakes.
Kim: I do have to bring up the poor turtle mother and how Brian is just a really terrible turtle murderer basically. I probably wouldn’t have been so affected by this, but I live on a lake and we have turtles. A turtle came up to the front yard once and laid her eggs. She was making her little turtle way back to the lake and a bird of prey came along and snatched the eggs. It was a sad day for me. I was a full grown adult at the time in case anyone was wondering. Also, I hate even chicken eggs so the descriptions of Brian eating those turtle eggs raw made me nauseous.
Wendy: I have great affection for turtles, so this was very upsetting to me, too. We had a pair of slider turtles for a few years (and as a child, I also had a pet turtle that met an unfortunate end), so it was hard to read. Certainly he was very lucky to have stumbled upon a source of protein, his body was likely starved for nutrition at that point.
Layla: I am sorry to say this Kim, but given a source of heat, I would absolutely have stolen those eggs. Sorry, turtles. One of the things I was curious about here was Brian’s relationship to nature in the book. How does it shift from the beginning?
Wendy: I think Brian represents most of us reading this book–citified folk without any real knowledge of what to do in a situation where everything’s stripped down to the elements. This book certainly is a great example of naturalism, whereby human beings are shaped by their experiences with nature. I liked that he not only learns how to hunt and fish and find shelter, but that he also comes to a realization of his place in the grand scheme of things as well. He’s part of the cycle of life, both its grand beauty and its terror.
Layla: Does being stranded help him sort through his relationship to his family? (This is kind of one of the discussion questions in the back of the book; “why is ‘The Secret’ less important to Brian by the end of the novel?” And I am curious about what you guys think.) I mean, yes, it definitely seems like The Secret becomes way less consuming once he’s fighting for his survival. But like, what’s the message here? “Get some perspective on your parents’ relationship problems by getting stranded in the Canadian wilderness.” I don’t know. Maybe it’s that Brian realizes how little control he has over anything, and how much he is at the mercy of his surroundings.
Kim: Brian learns that nature is merciless and ultimately there is no meaning in anything. :D Remember how that moose just mercilessly attacked him? There was no reason to it? Animals do things without reason and people are also animals (though we forget that all the time). You can’t understand nature and you can’t control it. The Secret is just another one of those things. There’s no reason to it. It’s not something you can control. You just have to move on to the things that you can control.
Layla: What was the most horrifying moment in the book for you? For me, the most memorable part of Hatchet is and will forever be the moment when Brian discovers that the fish he’s been eating have been eating the dead pilot’s face off. When he finds that skull and it’s almost picked clean and he vomits? Yeah, I come verrrry close to sympathy-puking with him there.
Kim: THAT SCENE. It has been imprinted on my brain since I read this book. I can remember sitting there in that classroom as a kid feeling a total sense of vertigo at how awful and horrifying the discovery is. But, you know, I not so secretly love how gruesome it is and that the author totally was not afraid to go there in a book for children. If I were Brian I probably would never have even attempted to get that survival pack (I cannot stress enough how dead I would be) because I’d be too terrified of coming across the pilot’s remains. Then again, it might only have occurred to me to have that concern because I’ve read Hatchet!
Wendy: Somehow I remembered the spoiler you guys used in the preview last month as “fish eating the pilot’s eyeball” and I reread that scene three times to make sure I wasn’t missing it. But eating his entire face off is pretty gruesome, too, even though it’s brief! More than the skull itself, I found it more chilling when Brian considers that the fish he has been catching and eating could have been feasting on the pilot beforehand. And ergo….in a way, eating the pilot himself. *shudder*
Oh, and the idea of the plane crash itself is pretty terrifying, too. I would be sweating and crazed in that situation. But now I know that if that does happen and we’ve lost radio contact, it’s probably a good idea to try and land it somewhere before you get too off-course so people can find you more easily–and before you’re forced to land when you run out of fuel.
Layla: How bittersweet is the moment when Brian finds the pack? As a child, reading the description of everything that was in there was actually like Christmas for me, in the way that Brian describes – there’s been so much hardship and privation for him thus far, and as a kid, I wanted to clap my hands together and rejoice in all that emergency food and, omg, the sleeping bag. But, of course, it’s what ultimately gets him rescued – at the moment that his life is beginning to seem a little more comfortable, he gets to go home. As an adult reader, it was bittersweet.
Wendy: Oh irony, you are a knee-slapping bitch.
Layla: I often think of that moment in the epilogue – about Brian’s sense of amazement at readily available food in grocery stores – when I shop for groceries. Like, at least 50-75% of the time. Hatchet is one of those books that has stuck with me. Like My Side of the Mountain, which is similar-ish, but totally different in that its protagonist chooses to go live out in nature. (Did either of you read that one?)
Wendy: I have this sometimes too, after watching Surivivor or reading other books about survival. (Incidentally, there’s a romance book by Linda Howard called Up Close and Personal in which there’s a plane crash and they brew tea made out of pine needles in a metal lunchbox. I’m so curious if that works.) I did read MSOTM as a kid, but I don’t remember it at all!
Layla: WHY DOES THE GOVERNMENT MAKE HIM DO THIS *AGAIN*? (“We want you to do it again.”) I’m pretty sure you guys can find someone who is … not a thirteen year-old boy and is actually able to consent to being stranded in the wilderness twice. Man, poor Brian.
Wendy: I actually cannot believe there are FIVE books in this series. The government thing sounds interesting, but stretching this out into this many books seems a bit much.
Wendy: 3.5 stars for me. The survival parts are obviously terrific, and it’s pretty amazing that the majority of the book consists of Brian on his own (I think there are maybe two other people with speaking parts, totaling no more than a page or two in the book), without too much exposition. While I didn’t find this at all boring, which is a criticism that sometimes gets leveled at survival sections of many books, I do wish there was a bit more sensory detail to put us into the moment, as well as emotional depth. Still, a solidly entertaining book if you like this sort of thing, which I very much do. I’d be curious to check out at least the second book in the series.
Layla: 4 stars! I could use a longer book. And you could do it so easily, too. There are huge sections of time that are skipped over, and while this didn’t bother me at all as a kid, as an adult, I would have appreciated more detail and as always, moar feelings. I love Hatchet, though, and it’s stuck with me in a way only a handful of books have. I certainly think of it more frequently than I think of books I loved more? Because of THE SCENE.
Kim: 4 stars. I agree with Layla; I would’ve liked those missing scenes filled in! But this held just as much dread and as much horror (thanks, THAT SCENE!!) that I remember as a kid. Plus, there’s always the nostalgia factor and I just can’t shake that. I can’t wait to put this in the hands of unsuspecting
victims child patrons at the library.
Our June book is To Kill a Mockingbird! Aside from being a classic that was studied in many high schools, we thought it would be a good time to read this one since the long-unknown sequel will be published later this summer. I suspect this one passed some people by as well, it’s kind of upsetting to me that the book’s GoodReads page doesn’t even come up in the first page of Google results.
Title: To Kill a Mockingbird
Author: Harper Lee
Discussion Date: Friday, June 26th
The unforgettable novel of a childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it, To Kill A Mockingbird became both an instant bestseller and a critical success when it was first published in 1960. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was later made into an Academy Award-winning film, also a classic.
Compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving, To Kill A Mockingbird takes readers to the roots of human behavior – to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor and pathos.
This is one that should be available in libraries, but who knows how many people might be checking it out for the same reason we are! The mass market paperback is only $5 or so, though, and I’m interested in checking out the audiobook since it’s read by Sissy Spacek.
If you’d like to get a head start on July’s book, we’ll be reading Trixie Belden #1, The Secret of the Mansion.
So which books have you enjoyed that had survival elements in it? Were you as riveted by Brian’s dilemma as we were?