Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, a newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, retrospectives, recommendations, and more. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
Across rural America, students have returned to school, and that got us thinking about an under-appreciated part of the media and entertainment landscape: the stories we encounter through classroom curriculum, in particular the books assigned in English and literature classes throughout our K-12 years.
When you stop and think about it, a significant portion of this canon is comprised of rural stories. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Of Mice and Men” and “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn,” “Anne of Green Gables,” “The Call of the Wild,” “Where the Red Fern Grows,” the list goes on and on.
This broader phenomenon deserves a deeper examination in and of itself (we have some experience there), but for today, we wanted to take a closer look at another selection that would naturally fit on the list above, the middle-grade book “Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen.
As we’ve done once before, we present our analysis in the form of a conversation, this time between myself and my colleague Anya Slepyan. Whether you share our nostalgic connection to this story or not, I hope you enjoy our chat about “Hatchet.”
Back to the Wilderness
Adam Giorgi: So, Anya, you and I were recently brainstorming about possible rural stories with a “back to school” theme. As we were thinking about good fodder, you suggested the book “Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen.
It’s a story I haven’t thought about in a good long while, but when you mentioned it a series of memories came rushing back. It turns out a lot of those memories were not too different from some of your own, despite our differences in geography and age.
What made you think of “Hatchet” as a story worth revisiting in our examination of rural media and pop culture?
Anya Slepyan: Well for one thing, it feels like one of those semi-universal experiences that people have in school. I remember reading it, and so did pretty much everyone at the Daily Yonder, excluding those who went to school before it came out in 1986 or were raised in a different country.
It also embodies the man vs. nature genre for young readers, and for better or for worse, has stuck with me more than 15 years after I first read it.
ABG: Yea, I can echo that. While I remember very few details of the story itself, I know for a fact we read it — my memory says it was probably around third grade — and it was pretty beloved among many of my peers, the middle-grade boys of a small public school in the woods of northern Minnesota.
As I became a more bookish, media savvy high schooler, I remember no shortage of my classmates continued to list “Hatchet” as their favorite book on their nascent MySpace profiles.
I would make many jokes at their expense about this fact, but in hindsight, it clearly speaks to how that story resonated with them as young readers.
AS: I think it’s still okay to make jokes at their expense.
ABG: In select company, perhaps! But overall, I’m trying to be a kinder, gentler person than my angsty teenage self, particularly when it comes to policing other people’s taste in entertainment.
AS: A noble goal, to be sure.
ABG: For the uninitiated, how would you introduce “Hatchet.” Lest your commitment to this piece be questioned, you actually revisited the book for the sake of this conversation (I, for the record, cannot say the same).
AS: So “Hatchet” is a classic survival story. The protagonist, Brian Robeson, gets stranded in the Canadian wilderness during the summer and survives 54 days before he is rescued (spoiler alert, but also it was published in 1986, so I think it’s fine).
Over the course of the book he learns to feed and protect himself and becomes at home in the forest.
Of course because it won a Newbery Award, he is also coping with his parents’ divorce, but that’s sort of secondary to the survival element.
ABG: As we discovered in preparing for this conversation, Brian’s story went on to become a bit of a franchise in and of itself, spawning four additional books as well as a movie. We won’t be covering those follow ups and adaptations in depth here, but it clearly offers additional evidence of the popularity and legacy of “Hatchet.”
AS: Oh yeah. Gary Paulsen wrote four sequels, including two with alternate timelines, that follow Brian both as he extends his time in the wilderness and tries, and fails, to readjust to society. I couldn’t bring myself to read them, but they were on Sparknotes, so there ya go.
ABG: What did you get out of revisiting the book today? Was it largely what you expected and remember? Was there anything in particular that surprised you?
AS: I have to say that re-reading the book was a pretty funny experience, mostly because my dislike for it is well known amongst my family. I have an older sister who read it and disliked it three years before I did, and I followed in her footsteps.
The problem at the time was less about the book itself and had more to do with the fact that it was just one in a series of “boy stranded on an island” books that I was forced to read that year. I think I would have been more entertained if there were at least some girls also stranded in the wilderness, but they seemed to have too much common sense to ever end up there.
ABG: It is a bit curious in hindsight that this was such a crowded sub-genre. A bunch of authors of the ’80s had fond memories of watching “Swiss Family Robinson” or “Gilligan’s Island,” perhaps?
AS: Oh, they were endless. And for some reason, all a part of my reading group’s curriculum. “The Kay,” “Kensuke’s Kingdom,” “My Side of the Mountain” to name just a few.
So it was notorious in my family for being the first book I remember being assigned to read that I didn’t like.
We even had a long-standing bit with a family friend that we called “wrench,” where we would imagine how to solve every problem we had with only a wrench, the way Brian seems to do with his hatchet.
I can’t say I liked it much better when I re-read it, but I did have some takeaways.
The first is that Brian is a deeply unlucky 13-year-old, and that any adults in his proximity are in great danger. The pilot who is flying him to meet his father suffers a heart attack and dies within the first 30 pages of the book. In the sequels, adults who help him tend to either get struck by lightning or eaten by bears. And he manages to get attacked by a moose and have his shelter destroyed by a tornado in the same afternoon.
ABG: I’m beginning to see a little bit why my classmates might have enjoyed this so much. Talk about an action-packed piece of school curriculum.
AS: Yes, he definitely goes through it. But of course all this misfortune is Paulsen’s vehicle to let his protagonist shine. At its heart, the book is about self-reliance and adapting to the wild, and he needed some sort of vehicle to get him there. I think one of the more interesting parts of the book as an adult reader is Paulsen’s success at defining Brian’s transformation.
ABG: If your story is built primarily around one isolated character, the stakes of getting that character’s growth and development right certainly rise.
AS: It’s true. And one of the reasons that the movie is practically unwatchable is because it is really hard to convey that growth and development with no one else on screen except for the occasional bear, no matter how glorious the lead actor’s mullet is.
In the book, Paulsen creates a strong contrast between Brian from “before” and the Brian who has learned to survive. Everything, from the way his senses work to the way he measures time, is different by the end.
In fact, most of the sequels revolve around the fact that Brian’s experience in the woods have permanently changed him and that he is no longer able or willing to return to his old life.
It leads to some pretty questionable situations, like him homeschooling himself in the woods as a 16-year-old, but the point still stands.
ABG: Based on what I’ve learned from some fellow Daily Yonder colleagues, my hunch is that Brian might have instead considered a Waldorf or Forest school before going all the way back into the wild.
AS: Ha, I do think that would be a better transition for him. But he does feel a lot of boredom and disdain for other teens after his ordeal, so I’m not sure how much it would help in the end.
Of course, there are some of the sillier elements that I remembered, like the fact that he quite literally solves every survival problem, from starting a fire to hunting fish to getting a survival pack out of the plane with his hatchet…
And there are some gender politics that don’t stand up great today, but that was mostly subtext.
ABG: To be fair, I can see the hatchet coming quite in handy for most of those situations. Though watching someone fish with one would be quite ridiculous.
AS: Don’t worry, he used the hatchet to make a spear.
ABG: There you go.
But it definitely makes the case for the rural bonafides of this series, particularly the homeschool in the wilderness part of it.
Was there anything else that struck you about how this story, and the sub-genre it’s part of, fit into our ongoing examination of rural themes and ideas in pop culture?
For my part, I definitely think the lofty, occasionally mythologized notion of rural life is directly tied into these ideas of self-reliance and resilience.
AS: When I think of rural, I tend to think more of societies in remote places rather than one boy with a hatchet alone in the woods. So I was struggling a bit with this one. I think you’re right on it though with the theme of self-reliance.
And there’s also a really great appreciation of the natural beauty and a person’s place in the world that I think can be hard to access in cities.
ABG: Not to be too flippant about it, but I suppose it would be normal for lots of rural people today to feel they share some of Brian’s hard luck as well.
AS: Well, as we know from recent Yonder reporting, there are some really large disparities in care for those suffering from heart attacks in urban versus rural environments. But I don’t think that study takes into account pilots who are actively flying airplanes with cursed boys named Brian.
It also makes me think about skills and knowledge that are deeply embedded in some people’s lives and not at all present in others’.
ABG: For sure. Out of curiosity, does it establish Brian’s normal residence prior to his adventure? Do we know if he’s a suburban or small-town kid, for example?
AS: He talks about his life in “the city” in contrast to the wilderness, but I think he takes off from an air-base in the Hamptons. So I’d go with suburban if I had to guess.
ABG: In terms of the character transformation you mentioned, and the differences in knowledge and skills, that would certainly align with some of the perceived differences between rural and non-rural people.
Rounding out this conversation, my last question for you is what do you think of “Hatchet’s” lasting value and relevance today? In your estimation, does it make sense to hold onto its place in the middle-grade curriculum, or to introduce this into your kids’ reading rotation through other means, as a parent or otherwise?
AS: Ooh, that is a tough question for me especially. I imagine that if my hypothetical children had to read it in school I would be amused, but mostly out of nostalgia and a little bit of schadenfreude (I’m not quite ready to be a parent, if you can’t tell). But I think that it is a book that at least some kids seem to really enjoy, and ultimately has lessons and themes that stand up well today.
ABG: That strikes me as an exceedingly fair answer. Given where we started, as you and I first started brainstorming this conversation, I’d say that almost sounds just shy of a ringing endorsement. Here I thought you’d be eager to seize this opportunity to call for hatcheting “Hatchet” from the curriculum, if you’ll forgive the dad joke.
As for your parenting instincts, I’d say as long as your future children don’t find themselves crashed and stranded in the wilderness, through whatever series of unfortunate events, you’ll have done good. Consuming media the adults tell you to is basically a universal rite of childhood passage.
AS: I would definitely be more excited if some stories about girls stranded on islands got added to the canon. But far be it for me to ruin the joy of thousands of “Hatchet”-loving third graders.
ABG: As one final point of interest here, I’ll note that in my local library system, there is still about an eight-week wait to get a hold of an ebook copy of “Hatchet,” so the lineage of Hatchet-loving third graders (and high schoolers?) definitely continues.
“Hatchet” is available in print, ebook, and audiobook format from your local library or wherever books are sold.
This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.