True Story: Hatchet

Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet was one of the books I was most excited to cover on the podcast. When I started making a list of all of the titles from my own childhood that I would want to cover once the show got up and running (well over a year ago!), I’m pretty sure this one was near the top. I have such vivid memories of reading it for the first time as an elementary schooler, and of thinking that it was so much different than any other book I’d read before. I couldn’t wait to see how I would experience it as an adult!

As you already know if you’ve tuned in to Episode 61, rereading Hatchet pretty much met my high expectations. The things I liked best about it now are different than the things I liked best about it when I was a kid, but I guess that’s the way it should be… and overall, I’d say that the two experiences balanced out so that I enjoyed the book equally both times. My guest on this episode was soon-to-be debut author Sara Faring, and we spent a lot of time writer-to-writer gushing about how beautiful Paulsen’s writing is. But, seriously. It’s very beautiful.

I had a lottttt of notes on Hatchet, and since we didn’t get to chat about them all in what essentially became a Gary Paulsen Fan Club meeting, I’m sharing the True Story below!

(Check out the episode here! Plot summary of Hatchet here!)

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I don’t think I actually knew what a hatchet was when I read this the first time…

I think I established prettttty clearly in the episode that I was firmly an indoor cat when I was growing up. And in my defense, what does a ten-year-old girl living in suburban Pennsylvania ever really need to do with a hatchet? In my experience, the answer to that question is nothing. She never really needs to do anything with a hatchet.

What is kind of embarrassing, though, is that I probably didn’t ever ask anyone to help me figure out what a hatchet was until the book was over. When I was little, I really didn’t like feeling stupid or needing to ask a lot of questions. I was told on more than one occasion that I was a bit of a know-it-all!

I’m sure I got the general sense of what a hatchet was based on the way Paulsen describes it in the book, but I definitely didn’t get a clear picture until way after the fact. If I had to guess, I would say that I probably learned the definition years later and had a moment of, “Ohhhhhhh, so that’s what that book was about!”

Brian had a shockingly mature handle on the legal nuances of his parent’s divorce.

I talk in the episode about the fact that — as a child of divorce myself — I often found myself drawn to book characters whose parents were also no longer together. When you’re a kid that spends a lot of time making plans based on whose house you’re going to be staying at on a given weekend, you can’t help but cling to that “divorced kid” identity! (For what it’s worth, I’m glad to say that I’ve moved on from that.) I think that Brian’s reflections on his parent’s divorce early in the book are probably what drew me in when I read it for the first time… because I can tell you right now that it wouldn’t have been the harrowing crash landing or the wilderness survival portions.

What is surprising about Brian’s relationship with his parents’ divorce is the extent to which he seems to understand the legal proceedings that are going on around him. He seems to know a whole lot about lawyers and how they can affect his life! My parents got divorced when I was so little that I have absolutely no memory of the legalities of all of it, so it was interesting to think about just how much a teenager might be able to pick up on in the same situation.

The heart attack scene in the beginning of the book was really hard for me to read.

Shortly after Brian boards the small plane in New York so he can fly to visit his dad, the pilot has a sudden heart attack. Brian is the only passenger, and at thirteen, he’s pretty ill-equipped to handle what’s going on!

When I read this book for the first time, I probably would have told you that some of the more survivalist scenes were hardest for me to read — eating the turtle eggs, hunting, dismantling dead animals to eat — but as an adult, it was that heart attack scene that really got me. It’s a danger that hits much closer to home!

My dad had a very sudden heart attack last summer. Thankfully, he’s okay now, but it was hard for me to read Paulsen’s graphic description of one of these episodes and to think that it could have mirrored at all what my dad went through.

The perspective shift I got with Brian’s age was particularly crazy with this book.

This is hardly the first time that I’ve reread a book for the podcast and LOL-ed about the fact that I once considered its main character a mature grown-up when they were really a teen — but it really got me with Hatchet! When I read it as a kid, Brian seemed so incredibly old to me. Maybe it was because I was in elementary school or was especially unfamiliar with teenage boys. Or maybe it was just because Brian did such an impressive job of taking care of himself for all of those days he was alone! No matter the reason, he basically felt like an elder to me. See? LOL.

Coming back to the book now having actually been thirteen myself, I couldn’t believe that Brian was going through all of this when he was so young. He was basically a baby left alone in the Canadian wilderness! Where I once felt impressed and intimidated by him, I now felt an almost maternal instinct to protect him. It was a wild perspective shift!

I’m still not sure what to make of the fact that he didn’t take the rifle…

In the final chapters of the book, Brian manages to get to a survival pack that’s been hidden in the back of the sunken plane. He takes most of the items in it, but he leaves the rifle behind. Sara and I didn’t get a chance to have a conversation about this, which is a shame, because I think that decision probably has a lot to say about the way he develops as a character over the course of the story. It’s also a really interesting moral discussion.

I’m not sure what I think Paulsen was trying to show us by having Brian leave the gun behind. Given the current conversation around guns in this country, I must say that I was happy that he did, though. Maybe he felt so lucky to have overcome all of the circumstances that easily could have killed him that he couldn’t bring himself to end someone else’s life? Maybe he realized he could fend for himself and didn’t need that kind of weapon to survive? Maybe he was scared of it? Whatever his reasons, I found that Brian’s choice made me like him that much more.

Listen to the podcast episode about Hatchet here!

I can’t wait to hear your “true story” thoughts about this book. Share them with me in the comments below.

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