Finck: Reading to Survive: Thoughts on Gary Paulson’s ‘Hatchet’

If you were stranded alone in the north woods, could you survive? Me neither, probably. But after having just read Gary Paulson’s young adult novel “Hatchet,” about a 13-year-old boy who does just that, I think I’d at least know what not to do. And if I happened to have a hatchet attached to my belt, I just might be able to start a fire and find food. If you were stranded alone in the north woods, could you survive? Me neither, probably. But after having just read Gary Paulson’s young adult novel “Hatchet,” about a 13-year-old boy who does just that, I think I’d at least know what not to do. And if I happened to have a hatchet attached to my belt, I just might be able to start a fire and find food.  I listened to this wonderful short novel last week during our vacation, which we traditionally spend in a rented cabin in northern Minnesota with extended family.  Part of the tradition is that our son-in-law Ben brings a book to read aloud to us over the course of the week. Each day we gather for a noon meal. Then our other son-in-law, Dave, brews up some really great French press coffee, and we all gather around with our mugs and cookies to listen to the next installment of the story. The idea is to finish the whole book in six days, and the coffee runs out after about half an hour, so Ben has to choose books that are relatively short. This year he brought “Hatchet,” and it was a winner. Paulson is a Minnesota author, and even though the story takes place in the wilderness of Canada, the lakes and woods were pretty easy for us to visualize as we looked out over Lake Kabetogama and Voyageur’s National Forest. As a first-time listener, I was in suspense to learn how Brian would survive the plane crash. His creative problem-solving is fascinating. But the way he learns to change his thinking is even more fascinating. The author does a nice job foreshadowing the challenge ahead by having the pilot show Brian some basic techniques involved in flying the plane and then say, “‘All flying is easy. Just takes learning. Like everything else. Like everything else’” (page 5). After the pilot has a heart-attack and the plane crashes, Brian has to figure out how to survive. This involves doing things he has never done before: figuring out how to start a fire without matches, how to make a shelter, how to catch fish with no hook or line. All this he does learn, but not without making mistakes and facing setbacks. In addition to the themes of patience and hope (hard problems can often be solved if you slow down and think about every detail), there is the theme of courage and the willingness to face the difficulties of life. I found it inspirational. The consensus of our group was that even people experienced in wilderness survival came away with good tidbits of insight. For example, fish can be speared if you compensate for the way water distorts perspective. And timber wolves aren’t naturally aggressive toward humans. But never mess with a moose.I’d love to hear your thoughts on “Hatchet” or any other Gary Paulson books you’ve read. You can reach me at [email protected] And remember to read 20 minutes today.