10 March 2016

Review: "Hatchet" by Gary Paulsen

Seemingly unknown outside the US, 'Hatchet' by Gary Paulsen never appeared on my radar until recently. Beloved by millions, this youth novel tells the story of 13-year old Brian Ropeson, who is left on his own in the Canadian wilderness and has to rise to the occasion in hope of being rescued.

Without giving too much away, the story starts with his mother driving him to a small airport in Hampton, New York, where he boards a Cessna 406 as its sole passenger on his way to visit his father, who works for a drilling company in the Canadian oil fields of the far north. His parents have recently divorced on his mother's behalf and Brian is still in the process of coping with this fact. Throughout the book, Paulsen regularly invokes this aspect of the character's background, going further into detail each time, implying infidelity of the mother as the reason. While his parents' separation is a plausible reason for him to be on such a delicate plane flying this exotic route, Paulsen never manages to weave a character-expanding purpose for it into the rest of the survival tale. Brian neither gains insight from it, nor do the unfolding events affect his perspective in being a divorce-child. Without this subplot, the main arc would literally remain unchanged–a chance unfortunately missed.
The book kicks into full gear when the pilot suffers a heart-attack above the lush forest wilder lands of the big white north. Unable to successfully establish communication and with fuel running low, Brian aims for an L-shaped lake on the horizon, revealed in the light of the afternoon sun. The plane relentlessly dives into the concrete-like water of the lake, tearing all of the windows out, throwing him about, and finally sinking into the green-blue depths. Brian escapes to the shore, mostly unharmed, but severely bruised and overall physically weakened. Almost two days of regeneration follow, in which he slowly familiarises himself with the lake, the forest, and their inhabitants.
This is when the title-giving hatchet takes centre stage in the story. Gifted to him by his mother before his departure, it becomes the life-saving foundation for all of his endeavours around the lake. A realisation the character also comes to closer to the books' ending, when he almost loses it on his quest to retrieve a survival kit from the re-emerged plane wrack. Without the hatchet, he couldn't have achieved anything; the hatchet is him. With this tool, he not only builds a shelter, crafts spears, bow and arrows for hunting, but also manages to make fire by catching sparks from hacking away at a rock.
Drama comes in the form of wildlife encounters and environmental hazards. Since they are crucial to the narrative, I am hesitant to spoil them, but let me state that Paulsen deserves credit for some well-placed twists on the survival formula. There are some unexpected adversaries, but also obvious ones, who turn out to be as curious of the main character, as he is of them. In these passages, the author muses on nature itself. And as the weeks pass by, Brian draws more and more conclusions from his experiences. He becomes driven by hunger, just like all the animals of the forest are, for nature is not allowed to be lazy. Food is life. And even though this hostile environment repeatedly lashes out against him, he becomes part of its ecosystem, and rises through failure with new-found maturity. But Brian can't help but to marvel at the poetic beauty of the scenery. This is wilderness romanticism at its best, but Paulsen avoids meandering on it and manages to make these points by way of narrative.

In the end, the book's shortness works to its advantage. A story this linear could've easily overstayed its welcome, but by keeping the chapters short and the word-count economic, the narrative breezily moves from checkpoint to checkpoint.
Make no mistake, this is a coming of age novel set against the backdrop of the Canadian wilderness, constantly contrasting civilisation with nature. But I found the main character's arc much easier to digest this way; and with the usual schmaltz of other youth novels avoided, Paulsen delivers a swiftly-paced, captivating read for all ages.

No comments:

Post a Comment