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Hatchet | Study Guide

Gary Paulsen

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Hatchet | Chapter 9 | Summary



It is easy to make sparks with the hatchet, but Brian finds he can't get them to catch fire. He digs through his pockets and finds a $20 bill his mother had given him for the trip. Though he rips the bill into tiny pieces, they won't light. He looks around and sees a birch tree with peeling bark that looks like paper. Brian pulls some bark free, takes it back to shelter, and again tries to light a fire. The sparks last longer, but they won't stay lit. Realizing the kindling needs to be thinner and finer, he takes more than two hours just to slice the bark into fine strips.

He tries again, and this time the sparks last longer. The strips of bark still won't catch fire, though. He thinks back on his science classes in school, and remembers fire needs oxygen. He makes more sparks, blowing on them now—and after several tries, makes a fire. But the fire burns through his kindling very quickly, and Brian realizes he needs to gather more branches. Once he gets the fire going he thinks of it happily as his friend and wishes he could show it to someone. This makes him wonder how his parents are doing.


Gary Paulsen experienced most of the things Brian goes through in the novel, including a forced landing in a small airplane. However, he has discussed key moments in the novel that he had to research because he hadn't personally experienced them. One was starting a fire using sparks from a hatchet, a task that took a long time to accomplish. His commitment to realism is part of what defines Paulsen's work.

The chapter brings together many of the novel's core themes—survival, change, autonomy, and nature—as it focuses on a single action. Brian's success at building a fire will both save his life and play a major role in developing his character. He will use fire to cook his food, drive horrific clouds of mosquitos away, and signal for rescue. Learning to use the materials in his environment, like the birch bark, strengthens his relationship to nature. Finally, Brian works from a "spark" of an idea to take a project through completion, showing a strong sense of persistence and ingenuity. He makes a crucial attitude change from disappointment to a persistent, analytical mindset. He breaks down the task, mining his formal education for the physical laws governing fire, until he identifies the core principles involved. This single skill increases Brian's sense of autonomy and fills him with pride.

At the beginning of the novel, Brian passively accepts what society and his parents provide him. He has initially dismissed the hatchet as "hokey" and has been embarrassed to wear it, never thinking it might have a practical use. Now he finds it is a crucial survival tool that lets him generate fire, a symbol of humanity and civilization.

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