Hatchet Book summary

Gary Paulsen



The Hatchet was published in 1987 and is the first of the five-book series that follows Brian through his adventure in the Canadian wilderness. Gary Paulsen is famed for his ability to write about nature, and the Hatchet is no different. The reader follows Brian Robeson, a thirteen-year-old American teenager who becomes stranded in the Canadian wilderness and has to learn to survive there for nearly two months with little more than a hatchet. Gary Paulsen draws heavily from his own experience in writing about Brian’s survival. Hatchet happens to be Paulsen’s favorite book since his mother had a problem with alcoholism, and he was forced to learn to live on his own at a very young age. The endnotes and prologues of his books have been known to be biographical. The Hatchet continues to be a favorite among young adults even thirty years after its publication, and it has also received the 1987 Newberry honor medal.


Plot Summary

Brian Robeson is a thirteen-year-old teenager who is going to see his father, a mechanical engineer working in the Canadian oil fields, for the first time after the divorce. Brian blames his mother for the recently concluded divorce because he knows of her secret but has yet to tell anyone. Brian is flying in a single-engine bush-plane and is sitting in the co-pilot chair next to the pilot. The pilot is very cold at first, but he sees Brian looking at him, and opens up to him slightly. He shows Brian a small tutorial of controlling the plane and resumes his single-minded focus on flying. Brian is wearing a hatchet on his belt, as his mother had given it to him on their drive to the airport. He had taken it without complaint for he had heard a different note in her voice. Brian feels the plane jerk and looks over at the pilot who is rubbing his left arm, and the smell of body gas pervades the cockpit. He realizes the Pilot is having a heart attack after he sees him bend over the controls and twitch uncontrollably. The shocked Brian is forced to take control of the plane as it begins to plummet downwards. He tries to reach someone on the radio, but he gets no aid. He decides to let the plane go on until it runs out of fuel, and when it does, he aims it towards a lake and manages to land there. Incredibly. Brian survives the plane crash and surfaces on the lakeshore. He lies there for nearly a day, unable to process the events of the previous day. In the aftermath of the crash, a dazed Brian recalls the day he had seen his mother with another man.

The crash hasn’t left him with any significant injuries, except for a swollen and tender forehead. Brian drinks some water from the lake and tries not to dwell on the now-dead pilot. At first, he is certain that the authorities will find him very quickly, but he then realizes that he had flown the plane in a different direction from the flight path for several hours, and so it was likely that the searchers would take a lot of time to find him. He remembers his English teacher and the lesson of positive thinking that he had drilled into all his students. Brian makes an inventory of all his possessions and sets out to create a shelter. He sets one up in an almost cave-like shelter and then sets out to search for some berries to eat. He finds a berry bush as he follows colorful little birds to the branches, he wolfs them down hungrily despite their tart taste and large pits. He drinks some more water from the lake and carries some of the berries back to his shelter. He then begins to build a wall for his shelter, and so creates it by weaving branches together. He is unable to create fire, and so goes to sleep in the cool darkness of the shelter only to wake in the middle of the night screaming for his mother. The berries make him sick, and he lies in the sand throwing up and having diarrhea, and has to crawl back into the shelter. As he tries to go back to sleep, he remembers watching his mother kiss a man that was not his father. He hadn’t told anyone of what he had seen, and he was certain that the man was the reason why his family had been caused to break up.

He wakes up the next morning and finds himself completely famished, he eats some of the berries he had harvested but eats them very cautiously. He then realizes that if there was one kind of berry then there might be another which may taste better and be less risky. He sets out to search for one and finds a bush of raspberries, and as he is happily eating them, he comes across a bear. He is frozen with shock, but the bear doesn’t attack him, it just eats one of the berries and heads away. Brian harvests some more of the berries with caution and takes some back to his shelter as it begins to rain. That night, Brian wakes to find a creature in his shelter, he tries to attack it with his hatchet and receives several quills in his leg. Once the creature has departed, Brian sinks into despair as he works to free the porcupine’s quills from his leg. He has a dream about his father, and his friend Terry, both of who try to indicate something important to him about the fire. The next morning, Brian realizes that he can use the hatchet to create sparks that could lead to a fire. He spends the whole day figuring out the process and finally creates fire. The joy is somewhat diminished as he realizes that he doesn’t have anyone to share the happiness with.

The next morning he identifies a set of tracks on the beach and follows them to find a stash of buried turtle eggs, that Brian eats with relish. He stows some away and begins to stack wood in his shelter, to always keep the fire burning. He also decides to build a bonfire on top of the shelter, so that he could light it to indicate his position. As he is stacking the wood on top of the rock, he notices a kingfisher hunt a fish from the lake, and so tries to do the same. He creates a spear but fails to hit any fish, and then he decides to create a bow. As he is working on creating a new bow, he begins to hear the sound of a plane. Brian runs towards the shelter, but he fails to light the fire on time, and the plane departs.

He is completely broken that night and tries to end his life. He awakens the next day, with a resolution to survive, and sets about creating a bow. He manages to do so after a nearly fatal failed attempt and then manages to kill the fish after he learns about refraction. Brian has dangerous encounters with a female bear, and a pack of wolves, but his instincts help him avoid conflict. He begins to plan for the future, and so builds a pen of living fish, and a food shelf above his shelter. Brian then tries to hunt a kind of foolish bird that lives in the forest. He has a difficult time as he is unable to distinguish their colors from the surroundings but then learns to look for them through shape rather than color.

He kills a bird, and as he is taking it down to the lake to clean up, he is attacked by a cow moose. It tries to drown him in the lake by smashing him into the mud, Brian survives the brutal attack by a razor’s edge only to find himself struck by a tornado. The winds steal his tools and rip up his shelter, but Brian remains fixed in his resolution to survive. He comes out to the lake’s edge in the morning to find the tail of the plane sticking out of the water, as it was moved by the winds. He remembers the pilot’s words about a survival pack and concocts a plan to access the pack. Brian spends several hours creating a raft that he could use as a base of operations, and then spends another whole day moving the raft to the plane. He doesn’t find any opening in the plane, and so uses the hatchet to tear the fuselage. The hatchet slips out of his grip and falls into the depths of the lake, and Brian turns all efforts into retrieving it. He then manages to open the plane, but nearly drowns inside it as he sights the skeletal remains of the pilot. The pack is extremely heavy, and he has a lot of trouble in taking it back to his shelter. Brian accidentally switches on an emergency transmitter as he is going through the bag, and is found by another plane before he has even had the freeze-dried meals from the pack. Brian returns home and receives a lot of attention in the news for being able to survive on his own. The changes that came over him in nature remain with him throughout his life, and although he tries to, he can never find the courage to tell his father about the secret.

  • Author(s)

    Gary Paulsen
  • Publication date


  • Language


  • Classification

     Adventure fiction 

  • Pages



Fiction, Novel


Simon & Schuster