Hatchet | Study Guide

Gary Paulsen

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Gary Paulsen | Biography


Though it wasn't pleasant to live through, Gary Paulsen's childhood equipped him well to write books like Hatchet that focus on survival. He was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 17, 1939, to first-generation Danish and Swedish immigrants. Paulsen didn't see his parents much in his early years because his father served in the military during World War II (1939–45) and was stationed in Europe. His mother worked in a munitions factory in Chicago. As a result, Paulsen's grandmother and aunts raised him. Paulsen was seven years old before he met his father after his return from the war.

Paulsen's family moved around a lot as the army shifted his father to different locations. He never spent more than five months at any school. Both of Paulsen's parents were alcoholics; as a result, Paulsen's family life was troubled. His parents often left him without supervision, and Paulsen often lived as a "street kid," an experience that marked him for life. He started running away from home when he was 11. Sometimes he survived by hunting or trapping game in the woods. In one instance, at age 14, he ran away for an extended time, during which he worked on a sugar beet farm and then traveled with a carnival.

When Paulsen was 12 or 13, he went into a library to get warm. The librarian offered him a library card, which changed Paulsen's life. Paulsen became addicted to reading, sometimes devouring a book a day. Despite this newfound love for reading, Paulsen said he was a "horrible student," and his teachers might agree. As a teenager he skipped school frequently, missing most of ninth grade. He graduated from high school, but with a D-minus grade average. When he was 17, he forged his father's signature so he could join the army.

Paulsen's Winding Professional Road

Paulsen spent three years in the army before leaving with an honorable discharge. He attended Bemidji College in Minnesota from 1957–59, paying his way with money earned as a trapper. He worked in construction and on a ranch; he also worked as a truck driver, sailor, satellite technician, and magazine proofreader. While he was working on the magazine, Paulsen realized that he wanted to write. He began to write extensively, sometimes working as many as 20 hours a day. In 1966 Paulsen published his first book, The Special War, a nonfiction work based on interviews with soldiers returning from Vietnam.

Paulsen wrote his first novel, Some Birds Don't Fly (1966), while living in an isolated cabin in Minnesota. In the 1970s, he went back to school, attending the University of Colorado. Paulsen became incredibly prolific, publishing hundreds of articles and dozens of books. However, he was sued for libel for his book Winterkill in 1979. Even though Paulsen won the case, he stopped writing. He ended up broke, then moved back to Minnesota where he knew he could support himself through gardening and trapping.

In 1983 Paulsen's life took a new and more positive turn. After a friend gave him some sled dogs he became interested in the Alaskan Iditarod dog races. He twice competed in this extremely rigorous, long-distance dog race, during which teams of dogs pull sleds over hundreds of miles. This experience shifted Paulsen's focus and practice as a writer. He concentrated on topics that moved him most, and he wrote his books longhand at night while the dogs were resting. Starting with his 1983 book, Dancing Carl, Paulsen's career took off. He began to write clusters of books based on his direct personal experiences and his love of the woods and the wilderness, often aimed at younger readers, who he felt are more open-minded than adults. Paulsen traveled the country visiting schools to show slideshows about the Iditarod, spending time speaking with, and most importantly, listening to students.

Paulsen became very successful as a writer, eventually publishing hundreds of books and articles. The Association for Library Service to Children gives the prestigious Newbery Medal each year for best children's book, with the runners-up receiving citations as Newbery Honor Books. In 1986 Paulsen's novel Dogsong (1985) was the first of his works to receive a Newbery Honor Book citation. Hatchet earned that honor in 1988, along with The Winter Room in 1990. In 1997 Paulson earned the Margaret A. Edwards Award, which the Young Adult Library Services Association gives for a body of work that makes "a significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature."

Paulsen's personal life has been varied too. Besides having adventures and changing careers, he has lived very different places: the Minnesota woods, a boat off the Pacific coast, and a 200-acre ranch in New Mexico. Paulsen married three times, and his third wife, Ruth Wright Paulsen, is an artist and has illustrated some of Paulsen's books.


The author drew on experiences from his own life in Hatchet. In fact, Paulsen has said that he's telling his own story in the novel. Paulsen was never stranded in the wilderness, like Brian, the novel's protagonist, but his alcoholic parents neglected him. As a result, Paulsen, like Brian, had to learn to fend for himself, especially when he ran away from home, which he did repeatedly. He also has extensive experience hunting and trapping, at one point making his own bow. Paulsen had also seen a plane crash and tear itself apart when he was just a child. Though it hit water, the angle of impact on the water caused the plane to break apart. Years later, while living in rural Colorado where medical help was far away, Paulsen served as an emergency medic. He performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on people dying of heart attacks, a memory he used to write about the pilot's heart attack in Hatchet. Most important, while in Alaska, Paulsen lived through the forced landing of a small plane after the engine stopped. The plane was the same type of Cessna in which Brian flies to Canada in Hatchet, and, like Brian, Paulsen was the only person on the plane other than the pilot. Paulsen's pilot, unlike Brian's, was fine. He glided to a landing, restarted the engines, and flew on. But Paulsen never forgot how he felt when the plane's engine stopped. He says "the world changed" and he knew the beautiful Alaskan wilderness below would "try to end us" if they crashed.

Hatchet received many positive reviews that praised the story and its writing style. Beyond its formal reviews, the novel produced many spontaneous responses from young readers. Many found this the first book assigned for school that they cared about and wrote Paulsen directly. At one point he was receiving 200 letters a day about Hatchet. Many of these letters focused on the epilogue, asking what Brian would have done if he hadn't been rescued and whether he would have lived through the winter. In response Paulsen wrote several more books, turning Hatchet into a series called Brian's Saga: The River (1991), Brian's Winter (1996), Brian's Return (1999), and Brian's Hunt (2003). He also published a nonfiction work titled Guts: The True Story Behind Hatchet and the Brian Books.

The first book remains the star of the series. TIME magazine has ranked it #41 on its list of the all-time 100 Best Young Adult Books. Hatchet was also filmed in 1990 under the title A Cry in the Wilderness.

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