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Hatchet | Study Guide

Gary Paulsen

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Hatchet | Context


Young Adult Literature

Hatchet is most often categorized as young adult (YA) literature. This descriptor is less a genre than a broad literary category that bridges the gap between children's literature and adult literature. The stories tend to feature adolescent characters and focus on the changes they go through. The characters must often deal with new challenges that ask them to take on more responsibility or mature in new ways. The stories also focus on how characters come to understand themselves, not in relation to parents or home, but in terms of the broader institutions of the world in which they live. These literary works tend to be written in a simpler style than adult novels. They use a more basic vocabulary and usually cover short time spans during which characters deal with specific events that define their lives.

All of these qualities can be seen in Hatchet. At age 13 the main character, Brian Robeson, faces a common challenge—his parents' divorce—when he is suddenly forced to spend two months in the wilderness and take complete responsibility for his life and survival. His primary focus is on surviving the present and the foreseeable future. The 1970s had seen many realistic YA books tackling social problems, but the 1980s saw more series books and genre fiction, like R.L. Stine's light horror books or the Sweet Valley High series, which resembles a soap opera. Hatchet's realism returns to the roots of young adult fiction and stands in stark contrast to these popular works of the 1980s.

Adventure Stories

Many classic myths and religious stories contain elements of adventure, ranging from the Greek epic The Odyssey, by Homer, to biblical stories, like that of David and Goliath. However, adventure stories for both adults and young readers in Europe and North America emerged as a unique genre in the 19th century. British authors generally tended to write about men having adventures overseas, in places like Africa, while American authors focused on adventures within the United States. Novels such as Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883), which was written specifically for children, British novelist Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (1912), and French novelist Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954) featured protagonists who faced dangers like bloodthirsty pirates or giant squids, often in spectacular or exotic locations far from home. Such novels were full of action and suspense. Hatchet carries on this tradition.

These tales of adventures often embody traditional masculine ideals. Taking physical risks and facing dangers, such as going to sea or traveling through wilderness, were considered proof of stereotypical manly characteristics such as bravery and determination. Adventure stories for children often double as coming-of-age stories. They tend to be about boys whose risky adventures cause them to gain skills and personality traits that help them mature into men. However, in recent decades the genre has come to include more female characters, such as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games trilogy, for example.

Survival Stories

Within adventure fiction is a subset of the genre—a long tradition of literary works that focus on survival. English writer Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe (1719) concentrates entirely on Crusoe's struggle to survive alone on an island after he is shipwrecked. German author Johann David Wyss's novel Swiss Family Robinson (1812), which was inspired by Defoe's experiences, also explores the survival theme, this time with an entire family lost on an island. In the 20th century, English novelist William Golding's Lord of the Flies (1954) strands on an island a group of boys who form their own society when they must survive without adults.

While these books were published for adult or general audiences, the survival story lives on in the realm of children's and young adult fiction. Jean Craighead George's My Side of the Mountain (1959) is a direct precursor to Hatchet. Its main character, 15-year-old Sam, runs away from home to survive on his great-grandfather's land in the Catskill Mountains. The protagonist of American author Scott O'Dell's The Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960), a Newbery Medal winner, is a 12-year-old Native American girl who must fend for herself after being left alone on an island in the Pacific.

For authors, isolating characters in this way has several great advantages: it creates natural dramatic tension, limits the cast of characters, gives the setting special significance, and empowers a young character to take care of her- or himself. Survival stories, as is true of Hatchet, also tend to ask and answer a similar set of questions:

  • What must a person do to survive—and will he or she be able to do it?
  • How will the experience change him or her?
  • What is the relationship of the individual to society?
  • What is the essence of a person when all the trappings of civilization are stripped away?
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