A funny thing happened on the way to reading this book. Last month I went to the Sydney Writer's Festival Secondary School Day with Master Wicker. We saw a great line up of four authors, the second of whom was Will Kostakis, author of The First Third (shortlisted for the CBCA Book of the Year for Older Readers this year). Will started talking about what got him into writing initially- and apparently it was the fact that he hated Hatchet so much when it was given to him by his Year 6 teacher. Will found it predictable. "I just guessed the entire course of the book in six seconds." Before my very eyes he did a hatchet job on Hatchet, a mere few days before I was to start reading….
I'd been wanting to read Hatchet for quite some time, and fully expecting to love it, so I was somewhat unsettled by young Will Kostakis' reaction. I've read a couple of Gary Paulsen's books before. My Life in Dog Years was totally amazing. Gripping, moving, fantastic. So amazing that you want every other book to be that good. Sadly every other book can't always be that good I guess, although Gary Paulsen has written more than 200 books which have sold more than 26 million copies, 3 of his books were Newbery Honour Books, so there's still plenty more for me to try.
Hatchet is one of those three Newbery Honour books, and one of Paulsen's most beloved books. It is frequently assigned reading for young people in American schools. Hatchet tells the story of 13 year old Brian Robeson, who becomes stranded in the Canadian wilderness after a plane accident. It is a classic survival story, a Robinsonade, in the way of My Side of the Mountain, Island of the Blue Dolphins or Kensuke's Kingdom. Brian's parents have separated and he is travelling to see his father, an engineer, who is working in the remote oil fields of northern Canada. Brian carries a secret about his parents, their marriage, and their divorce.
While I didn't love Hatchet as much as I hoped, I didn't dislike it as much as the young Will Kostakis did. I am glad to have finally read Hatchet, at the very least I would not know that porcupines smell really bad if I hadn't read this book! Many of the survival themes were quite similar to The Call of the Wild, which was the last book that I read.
Early in the new time he had learned the most important thing, the truly vital knowledge that drives all creatures in the forest- food is all. Food was simply everything. All things in the woods, from insects to fish to bears, were always, always looking for food- it was the great, single driving influence in nature. To eat. All must eat.
Nothing in nature was lazy.
Brian learns skills, and grows during his time in the wilderness.
He did not know how long it took, but later he looked back on this time of crying in the corner of the dark cave and thought of it as when he learned the most important rule of survival, which was that feeling sorry for yourself didn't work. It wasn't just that it was wrong to do, or that it was considered incorrect. It was more than that- it didn't work. When he sat alone in the darkness and creed and was done, was all done with it, nothing had changed. His leg still hurt, it was still dark, he was still alone and the self-pity accomplished nothing.
At one stage Brian finds a rifle, and he has an interesting reaction to it.
It was a strange feeling, holding the rifle. It somehow removed him from everything around him. Wihtout the rifle he had to fit in, to be part of it all, to understand it and use it- the woods, all of it. With the rifle, suddenly, he didn't have to know; did not have to be afraid or understand. He didn't have to get close to a fool bird to kill it- didn't have to know how it would stand if he didn't look at it and moved off to the side.
This disconnection is particularly interesting to me, given the ongoing gun debate (with no discernible change) in the US. Gary Paulsen has lived a fascinating, often hard, life. Running away from his alcoholic parents quite early, he lived in the wilderness like Brian- something he still chooses to do. Paulsen's writing style is a bit Hemingwayesque- and now that he's a bearded older chap he looks a bit like him too.
Read like a wolf eats. Read when they tell you not to read, and read what they tell you not to read.