Classic Readalong Discussion: Hatchet

May 29, 2015 2015, classics, readalong, realistic fiction, Wendy 24

classic readalong hatchetIn 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.)

vine-divider-finalWendy: 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.

hatchet gary paulsenLayla: 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.

hatchet gary paulsenWendy: Oh, Brian totally should have used those quills as stabbing devices! Or to break off bits to sew things, perhaps.

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.

hatchet gary paulsenLayla: 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.

hatchet gary paulsenLayla: 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.

Final Ratings:

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.

vine-divider-finalJune Readalong: To Kill a Mockingbird

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.

to kill a mockingbirdTitle: To Kill a Mockingbird
Author: Harper Lee
Discussion Date: Friday, June 26th
Hashtag: #tmgreadalong

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.


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So which books have you enjoyed that had survival elements in it? Were you as riveted by Brian’s dilemma as we were?

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24 Responses to “Classic Readalong Discussion: Hatchet”

  1. Hillary Pena

    I think this book may be good but i think that the “Finding Audrey” by Sophie Kinsella is more intresting than this book in my own opinion. However “Finding Audrey” is such a hilarious book good transtion words.

  2. Alison Bews

    I wish I had known when this read along was going on. I loved reading this book! We read it as a class in the fourth grade, but I had forgotten about it. This reminds me that I should read it again!
    Alison Bews recently posted…What a Glorious Thing!

  3. Pili @ In Love With Handmade

    I don’t usually read too many survivalist books but I loved reading this one, even if it took me a lil while to really get into Brian’s voice… but once I got used to his stream of consciousness narrative, I really was riveted! That moose attack? Super scary because it was so random, and it’s not an animal you’d expect to really attack without reason, I mean… a carnivore would have a reason, but a moose?? And the tornado??

    Maybe because of the whole being a nurse the bit about the pilot skull didn’t made the same impact, even if I really felt horribly bad for Brian, and thinking that you could have been eating the fishes that ate the pilot’s carrion? UGH!!

    I wouldn’t do too well on a “bloody middle of nowhere survival” either, because I’d fail at hunting animals and surviving only on plants wouldn’t take me far and because I’m not sure I’d manage to start a fire with a hatchet!! O_o I feel like I should pack a survival kit with me whenever I fly now…

    Great pick, Kim! It made me think about a good lot of things that I usually only think about in the context of dystopian or zombie apocalypse and that reminds me… I need to get Lasik done, needing glasses or contacts I wouldn’t survive for long in the wilderness!!
    Pili @ In Love With Handmade recently posted…Friday Reads: ARC Review of Uprooted by Naomi Novik!!!

    • Wendy Darling

      I think moose are supposed to be quite dangerous (they’re so damned big! and apparently bad-tempered), though that’s not the image we get from cartoons or nature photography. People should know more about moose, in case they run into them in the wild!

      That’s such a good point about the eyeglasses, too. I am too scared to get Lasik (if only they could do it while I was asleep and not STARING AT THE LASERS COMING AT MY EYEBALLS), so if I didn’t have my glasses or if my contacts dropped out or if I broke those glasses, I’d be shit out of luck pretty quickly, too. You and me, fumbling around making too much noise in the wilderness, Pili. Dead meat.
      Wendy Darling recently posted…BEA 2015: Event Recap + Giveaway

  4. Emma

    I was forced into reading this book multiple times in elementary school, at least every year for three years, each of my teachers thought it was the best book for us. The first time I sort of enjoyed it, by the third time I hated it. I remember with certain things, like starting a fire, I was so frustrated with Brian not knowing what to do. I grew up camping every summer so a lot of the simple survival stuff was second nature to me and I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t that easy for everyone. Now that I’m older and more worldly I get it, not many people go out in nature.

    Despite my hatred for it I went on to read The River and Brian’s Winter, when Brian’s Return came out I had had enough, I was only masochistic enough for two sequels, the third was too much for me. The River I remember kind of enjoying, but Brian’s Winter was just stupid, you can only beat a dead horse so many times before it is no longer interesting.

    Reading your review actually makes me want to pull it off my shelf and do a reread (bare minimum of the Hatchet, but maybe even the rest of the series), something I never thought I’d say about it. I think reading it as an adult would make me appreciate it a bit more. And I agree completely with you guys, the scene that remains most vividly in my mind from the book is the dead pilot, followed closely by removing the porcupine quills. Ugh!
    Emma recently posted…Stacking the Shelves

    • Layla

      Wait, MULTIPLE TIMES? I don’t think I ever had to read it for school. (I remember reading The Outsiders and A Day No Pigs Would Die and … that’s what I remember of middle school.)

      I can totally see being peeved with Brian for his total lack of survival skills at the beginning, especially if you have a background in camping. (This makes me want to ask one of my good friends, who grew up camping a bunch, if she’s ever read this.) My family didn’t ever do these things – and I was never a girl scout or anything, so my survival skills have always been close to nil. I still don’t really know how to start a fire!

      OH MAN and you’ve read the sequels. I actually haven’t done that (it’s the beating a dead horse thing). I see the appeal of the plot the first time, but times three? No thanks. I also can’t believe that the CANADIAN GOVERNMENT wouldn’t have better resources for survival tactics than a thirteen year old boy. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s how I feel. Brian, don’t do it!
      Layla recently posted…Poison is Not Polite: exclusive cover reveal + giveaway

  5. Carina Olsen

    Stunning discussion, as always, girls :D You are all amazing. <3 And ugh, you are making me curious about this book. How mean :D It sounds a bit creepy. And I do like survival things :D I might have to check it out. <3 I'm so glad you all mostly liked this book, despite not fully loving it :) Thank you for sharing about it and letting me know about it. <3 Had not heard of it before. Huh :)
    Carina Olsen recently posted…Cover Reveal: The Mirror King by Jodi Meadows

    • Wendy Darling

      I’m glad to be called “mean” if it’s because we’ve possibly convinced you to check out a book! :D

      It’s not really a “love” type of book to me, but definitely one I thought was a very entertaining and gripping read. I was so nervous for this character!

      I’m always fascinated to hear which of our American classics are known overseas, so thanks for the feedback, Carina. The boy crashes over the Canadian wilderness, and one of our readers was telling me on Facebook that apparently this book was required reading in some Canadian grade schools when she was young. So interesting, right? He’s an American author, too.
      Wendy Darling recently posted…Poison is Not Polite: exclusive cover reveal + giveaway

    • Layla

      I will say that there are certainly books I loved more (way way more) as an adolescent, but this is one of the ones that has really stuck with me over the years. I probably think of this book way more frequently than I do almost anything else I read when I was in junior high school. Not totally sure why, but there it is. (I think it’s the major creepiness factor of the book.)

      If you like books about surviving in the wilderness, you might like it? :)
      Layla recently posted…Poison is Not Polite: exclusive cover reveal + giveaway

  6. Brenda

    I really enjoyed reading Hatchet, stories based on things that actually can happen are the stories that scare me the most. Paulsen really didn’t hold back either, making Brian’s story really gripping. Man and the animals, I knew moose were mean, but seriously didn’t see that scene coming. I wish the ending hadn’t been so abrupt though, it felt like there was more story to tell. Great discussion!
    Brenda recently posted…Classic MG Realistic Fiction: Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

    • Wendy Darling

      Oh, I absolutely agree with this–for example, I’m much more likely to be scared by serial killer type movies or stories than I am by typical horror ones.

      The animal encounters were so intense! It’s a miracle Brian wasn’t more seriously injured. The author did that part really well, he made you feel Brian’s pain without it taking over too much of the story.

      I agree on the ending being a bit abrupt, though. I would like to have seen the story and descriptions fleshed out a bit more overall, but I still enjoyed this very much–and I’m glad you did, too! Hope you’ll be joining us for TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, too. :)
      Wendy Darling recently posted…Poison is Not Polite: exclusive cover reveal + giveaway

      • Brenda

        I really think that Brian had a mild head injury, without Paulsen saying it explicitly. Cause how would Brian even know that? But, so much of his mantra about keeping things simple, talking himself through each of the steps, etc. are what you could see after a head injury. Yep, I’ll be joining in for To Kill A Mockingbird, got my copy ready to go.
        Brenda recently posted…Top Ten Tuesday: Books I’d Love to See as Movies

        • Wendy Darling

          Huh, you might be right about that, Brenda! I never even thought about it, and I didn’t realize those were symptoms of head injuries.

          Hooray for Mockingbird! I’ve started the audio with Sissy Spacek, who is such a great narrator for this.

    • Layla

      THE PORCUPINE! And the moose. The moose is terrifying. The idea that it’s just there to continually beat him down because it feels like it! I was also worried that Brian would encounter snakes or something, but obviously this is my fear showing itself.

      I did feel like the ending was abrupt, too – and some parts of the novel? I know that I don’t need all of the details behind Brian’s survival, but I felt like we got a lot for the first few days, and then after that, he has several victories which we hear about but don’t get to sort of see first-hand. (I know he’s stoked over First Meat, but we hear about it from a distance.) Sigh. Also, I do want Brian to be rescued, but I want him to live like a king on all that food he found first!
      Layla recently posted…Poison is Not Polite: exclusive cover reveal + giveaway

  7. Michelle

    I remember absolutely loving this book when I was younger. I’ve been meaning to pick up a copy for AAAAGES but haven’t gotten round to it. Think this post has convinced me I need to buy one ASAP. This is definitely one of those books that has just stuck with me since I was a child.

    • Layla

      Oh Michelle, absolutely go read it! It did hold up over time; I hadn’t read it in at least 15 years. Maybe more! And I still very much enjoyed myself, although it was weirdly scarier to me as an adult than it was when I was a kid. (Maybe as a kid it seemed like an adventure and/or that Brian totally had things under control, whereas as an adult I am TERRIFIED for him 24/7.)
      Layla recently posted…Poison is Not Polite: exclusive cover reveal + giveaway

  8. kindlemom1

    I remember reading this years and years ago and loving it! I think it was my first “survivor” type read and thinking how brave he was and how in the same situation, I so would have died!

    I love this discussion!
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