Hatchet | Study Guide

Gary Paulsen

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Hatchet | Chapter 1 | Summary



When the novel opens, 13-year-old Brian Robeson is in a Cessna 406, a small plane, flying from New York to Canada to see his father. His father is a mechanical engineer who has created an improved drill bit for oil drilling and works in the Canadian oilfields. His parents have just divorced. As part of the new custody agreement between his parents, Brian is going to spend the summer with his father. Brian thinks about the divorce, mentioning a "Secret," fights, and a "big split." On their way to the airport, his mother tries to get him to talk about the divorce, but Brian remains silent. His mother gives him a gift, a hatchet to wear on his belt, but Brian finds it "hokey."

Brian is alone in the plane except for the pilot, a man in his mid-40s named "Jim" or "Jake"; Brian is not really sure. When they leave from the small airport, the pilot barely speaks to Brian. However, as the flight continues, the man becomes more friendly. He lets Brian take the copilot's controls and shows him the basics of guiding the plane. After they've been in the air for some time, Brian begins to smell the pilot passing gas. The pilot is physically uncomfortable, and Brian thinks the man might have an upset stomach. He starts rubbing his chest, then spasms dramatically as he has a heart attack. He either passes out or dies. Brian is left in the plane alone with the unconscious pilot.


The plane trip in Chapter 1 acts as a bridge between the divorce and Brian's time in the Canadian wilderness, suggesting a connection between the trials Brian faces at home and those he will face in the wilderness. In this first chapter, Paulsen establishes two important themes that will develop throughout the novel. The first is the theme of change. His parents' divorce has deeply disturbed Brian; he thinks of divorce as "an ugly, breaking word." It is forcing him to leave the familiar environment of home. He is already in a fragile mindset when the pilot's heart attack precipitates a crisis.

At 13, Brian understandably lacks a sense of autonomy to process traumas effectively. He knows how he feels and experiences, but not what he can do to change his circumstances. For example, he notices the smell in the cabin and the pilot's discomfort but says nothing about either observation. This chapter provides a baseline so readers can understand how Brian's isolation in the wilderness will change him. The Brian who gets on the plane in Chapter 1 differs considerably from the resilient person Brian will become by the novel's end.

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