In nearly all the stories about people alone in the wilderness, the survivors of plane crashes and shipwrecks forging themselves small corners of civilization, there’s a moment of silence. It comes early on, once the hero has realized his predicament and is surveying an unknown territory where he is suddenly, shockingly, alone.
In Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, the high-water mark of this genre, or at least its young-adult subset, here is the moment of silence that 13-year-old Brian Robeson experiences after crash-landing into the Canadian wilderness and screaming impotently about his hunger.
When he stopped there was sudden silence, not just from him but the clicks and blurps and bird sounds of the forest as well. The noise of his voice had startled everything and it was quiet. He looked around, listened with his mouth open, and realized that in all his life he had never heard silence before. Complete silence. There had always been some sound, some kind of sound.
It lasted only a few seconds, but it was so intense that it seemed to become a part of him. Nothing. There was no sound. Then the bird started again and some kind of buzzing insect, and then a chattering and a cawing, and soon there was the same background of sound.
Which left him still hungry.
This moment comes, incidentally, right after several hundred mosquitoes drained Brian in a swarm that “flocked to his body, made a living coat on his exposed skin, clogged his nostrils when he inhaled, [and] poured into his mouth when he opened it to take a breath.” This is not The Swiss Family Robinson, in other words. There is no bitchin’ treehouse, no coconut radio, no monkey butlers, as Bart Simpson would rue some years later. Brian himself gets pissed about this: “In the movies they always showed the hero finding a clear spring with pure sweet water to drink but in the movies they didn’t have plane wrecks and swollen foreheads and aching bodies and thirst that tore at the hero until he couldn’t think.”
Settling in to reread Hatchet, I had fond memories of Brian’s titular ax—the sole tool he’s lucky enough to have on hand—and the awesome way he wore it looped onto his belt, similar to the way I would’ve had a Sony Walkman clipped to my own. I remembered his adventures in spear-fishing, and “fool birds,” the name he gave to the bumbling ruffed grouse he hunted. I also remembered his moment of silence amid the tranquility of unspoiled nature, but I did not remember that it came at the culmination of a brutal birth into survival mode. When Hatchet was turned into a film in 1990 (under the title A Cry In The Wild), it was perhaps the first young-adult adaptation to scream out for Werner Herzog. (Instead, it got Mark Griffiths in a rare moment of semi-respectability amid a career otherwise notable for Hardbodies, National Lampoon’s Going The Distance, and Beethoven’s 5th.)
Survival stories were big for me growing up, a fact I was all set to pin to the simple idea that they were fun. And while some did make for appealing daydream settings—like Swiss Family Robinson or the volumes of The Boxcar Children where the brats were off on their grandfather’s island, rolling out pie dough with wine bottles—the surprising thing I realized about Hatchet was that this was perhaps the only pop culture that resonated with me because it wasn’t fun.
I first read the book in sixth grade, where it was one of the more warmly received of the assigned texts in English. At the time my family was living in Hong Kong, putting me about as far from the Canadian wilderness as one could be. Not only was I quite literally on the other side of the world, but the hyperactivity of that maze of glass and concrete (which to my mind still dwarfs the sleepy town of New York City I now call home) made Brian’s solitude—and silence—compellingly alien.
The appeal of survival fiction crystallized about a year later. I was recently discharged from a hospital (admitted for complications related to a sinus infection; I was the kind of kid who could be laid up for a week because of nose issues). On my first day back at school, I was thrown to find my two best friends not hanging out in our usual perch in the computer hall, but instead sitting on the classroom couch and flirting with girls, an image that serves as a convenient demarcation between my childhood years and adult ones. I was at the age where I was curious about the other sex, but I was a late bloomer, and my new routine of the couch and the girls was an extended study in shyness and awkward impressions. I was pushed to move at a speed I wasn’t ready for, and until I became ready I bumbled about as a fifth wheel, too benign to cast away but too inept to be fully welcomed into the gang. My reaction to this was a mixture of anger at their accelerated cool and frustration at my own stuntedness and inability to deal.
It was in this period that I read Robinson Crusoe, that granddaddy of survival fiction. While it doesn’t have an explicit moment of silence, Daniel Defoe depicts Crusoe realizing that he’s the sole survivor of a shipwreck, “making a thousand gestures and motions which I cannot describe, reflecting upon all my comrades that were drowned and that there should not be one soul saved but myself.”
While my reaction isn’t exactly supported by the text, my brain registered: That lucky bastard! He doesn’t have to put up with anyone’s bullshit anymore!
Turns out that fending for one’s self in the wilderness has something of a clarifying effect, and that clarity holds a potent appeal for anyone dealing with tiresome day-to-day baloney. In order to survive, Brian’s focus has to go from the unsolvable complexities of modern life (he’s on the plane to visit his dad for the first time after his parents’ divorce) to basic questions of food and shelter. There’s something comforting in this simplicity of purpose; even junior high isn’t the life-or-death struggle that nature is.
This simplicity was just as appealing as a 28-year-old, which didn’t surprise me. Several years ago a friend forwarded me the real-estate listing of a $19,000 house somewhere in Delaware, joking that we should quit our jobs to take up residence there, earning a living from the $5 admissions we’d charge to various keggers. The pictures suggested the house was only slightly less rustic than the cave Brian takes up in; nonetheless, there’s hardly been a month where we haven’t referenced this plan.
(Side note: that Brian crashes in the wilderness is one of the primary differences between Hatchet and the similar My Side Of The Mountain, where the 12-year-old Sam Gribley gets sick of his family and sets out for the woods of upstate New York. I didn’t care for that one growing up, since Sam’s meager supplies still gave him a leg up over Brian’s hatchet, while I couldn’t relate to his desire to abandon his life. Considering how much Into The Wild resonated with me in college with its depiction of modern-day ennui, perhaps I should give it another shot.)
In the long, lovely central section of the book, Brian trains himself to adapt to this new life, which involves understanding and respecting the world much more than employing brute force on it. Though the parallel is never insisted upon, this process functions as a metaphor for growing up. No wonder adolescents, who will soon have to secure their own food and shelter on a day-to-day basis, respond so powerfully to Hatchet. (The boys, at least. An informal study I conducted suggests that the other half of my classroom couch would’ve been more into the similarly themed Island Of The Blue Dolphins.)
At the same time, Paulsen doesn’t make it easy for Brian, and any romantic notion of roughing it dies when his first meal turns him violently ill. There are always timers running toward zero. No problem is ever really solved; even at his fullest it’s only a matter of time before hunger strikes again. (Among recent entries in the survivalist genre, Andy Weir’s fantastic 2014 novel The Martian took this to brilliant extremes with its stranded astronaut dealing with not just limited air and water and food, but also the immutable laws of science.)
My favorite part of my re-read was the attention paid to how difficult survival is in the woods. It takes Brian forever to learn how to light a fire, and it’s a hard trial-and-error process to build a bow and arrow, let alone learn to shoot it. This part, admittedly, is fun in the Swiss Family Robinson way, approaching a rather pure definition of “adventure.” But even as Brian grows more competent, darkness peeks around the edges. His shelter is easily wiped out in a storm. Rescue seems impossible almost immediately. Loneliness and frustration at one point compel him to attempt suicide.
But Brian does get rescued in the end, in what is by far the most disappointing part of the book. After a daring plot to retrieve a survival package from the plane (partially sunken in a lake), Brian finds an emergency transmitter and turns it on, leading almost immediately to a plane landing and taking him home. He’s the beneficiary of a double deus ex machina, leading to an arbitrary ending.
While Brian is obviously going to survive the ordeal (he’ll be back on his own in The River, the second of the five books in the Brian’s Saga series), the final abruptness is frustrating. Right before he turns on the transmitter, he discovers a rifle and butane lighter in the pack, two items that utterly change the calculus of his survival.
The rifle “somehow removed him from everything around him. Without the rifle he had to fit in, to be part of it all, to understand it and use it… suddenly, he didn’t have to know; did not have to be afraid or understand.” He ends up setting the rifle aside, conflicted by the change it represents. “He could deal with that feeling later,” Paulsen writes in the book’s most compelling moment, an instant where Brian has to make a serious decision about the kind of life he will lead. But Brian doesn’t deal with it, because that damn plane lands two pages later and nullifies the issue. It’s a non-ending, followed by a curious epilogue where Brian is still unable to tell his father that his mother cheated on him during their marriage, a secret that had driven Brian mad before the crash.
The moment registers as more incomplete than complex, but it’s a boldly ambiguous note to end on, suggesting that even self-reliance doesn’t automatically result in answers to the truly complex questions of adult life. At age 11, the epilogue was no doubt over my head. At 28, it’s oddly unsettling.