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Hatchet | Study Guide

Gary Paulsen

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Course Hero. "Hatchet Study Guide." September 1, 2017. Accessed May 28, 2023.


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Hatchet | Plot Summary

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Hatchet tells the story of 13-year-old Brian Robeson and his successful attempt to survive alone in the wilderness. When the novel begins, Brian's parents have recently divorced, an event that Brian finds painful. Brian boards a small plane to fly to meet his father in Canada, where his father is working. This is the first summer he will spend with his father alone since the divorce. Only Brian and the pilot are on the plane. Brian does not know the man's name, and they don't speak until they have taken off and been in the air a while. The pilot then explains the basics of flying a plane and lets Brian practice.

Suddenly the pilot has a heart attack, and he either dies or loses consciousness. Brian can't tell which. Brian panics and then realizes he has to try to fly the plane. After some struggle he begins to guide it. He doesn't know most of the instruments, but he identifies the radio and calls for help. He can only contact someone briefly, just long enough to tell them that there is no one who can fly the plane, before the connection breaks up. He calls for help over and over again for several hours. Eventually he concludes that he'll have to land the plane. Not long after, the plane's engines stop.

Brian does the best he can to guide the plane. He sees a lake below and aims the gliding plane toward it, thinking it might do less damage. He slams into some trees, wrecking the plane, which lands in the lake. Brian tears himself out of the seatbelt, scrambles out of the plane, and swims for the surface. He reaches the shore and passes out. While unconscious, he dreams of something that happened before his parents' divorce, when he saw his mother kissing a man other than his father, which he calls the "Secret." Later, he wakes up on the shore of the lake. He's alone in the wilderness. Mosquitos swarm all over him. As he grows hungry, he realizes he will have to take care of himself. He inventories his possessions and then remembers his English teacher Perpich's advice to stay motivated and have faith in one's own abilities. He builds a shelter against a rock and then looks for food, finding some berry bushes. He eats a lot of them and saves more for later.

Brian wakes up terribly sick from the berries. He goes looking for better food and finds some raspberries, eating them more methodically so he won't get sick again. As he eats he sees a bear, but the animal does not attack him. That night something crawls into a shelter with him, but he can't tell what it is because it's dark. He tries to drive it away by throwing his hatchet at it, but he misses and the hatchet hits the rock wall, shooting off sparks. The creature stabs his leg and leaves. It was a porcupine, and Brian finds its quills in his leg, which is now in pain. He spends a lot of time pulling them out.

Brian learns to build fire using sparks he makes with his hatchet. That night, after he gets his fire going, he hears something sliding across the sand outside. The next morning, he figures out that it was a turtle crawling onto shore to lay eggs. Brian eats some turtle eggs raw and saves the rest. As he cleans up his camp, he recognizes how much he's changed. He is more aware of the wilderness, and his actions are more purposeful. He realizes there are fish in the lake, but can't catch them at first. He makes a spear and tries to stab them, but that doesn't work, so he sets out to make a bow and arrow. While he is working on it, a plane flies overhead. He runs back to camp to build up his fire as a signal, but the plane flies away without seeing him. Brian falls into a deep state of despair and feels as if he wants to die. He tries to cut his arms with his hatchet, but gives up, then spends a sleepless night. The next morning he wakes up and knows his disappointment about the plane has "cut him down and made him new." He also vows that he will live and "not let death in again."

Weeks pass and Brian embraces the "new" person he has become. His knowledge and skill grow. He is at ease in the wilderness. He still makes mistakes, but he keeps his fire going, and has built a bow and arrow that works. He catches fish regularly, and cooks them over the fire. One night a skunk enters his shelter, and when it sprays him it blinds for a while. The longer he's in the wilderness, the more he knows what is important: food and shelter. He makes his shelter more secure and finds a shelf he can use to store food. He designs and builds a small pond and stocks it with fish. His hunting improves as he learns how to see birds in the bushes, eventually catching and cooking one. He also learns to kill rabbits, which gives him another food source.

One day when Brian is hunting, a moose attacks him. It charges him, slams him with its head, and throws him in the lake. When he tries to escape, it attacks again, driving him underwater. It wounds his ribs, and he can really barely make it back to the shelter. Just as he arrives, another disaster strikes as a tornado hits. It tears his shelter apart and scatters his possessions. Brian is disappointed but defiant. His time in the wilderness has made him confident he can handle whatever comes, so he begins to rebuild his shelter right away.

The next day, Brian sees the tornado has raised part of the plane out of the water. He remembers there's a survival pack on the plane. If he wants it, he'll have to go into the lake to get it. He builds a raft and goes out to the plane. At first he can't get in and is very frustrated. But when he slams his fist on the plane he realizes how thin its metal covering is. He starts chopping a hole in the side of the plane with his hatchet, but accidentally drops the hatchet. It sinks to the bottom of the lake. He has to dive repeatedly into the murky lake bottom to recover his hatchet, but he succeeds. When he gets it back, he uses the hatchet to make the opening in the plane wall wider and goes inside. He finds the survival pack but also sees the dead pilot's skull. He pulls the survival pack to the top of the water and slowly drags it home. It's heavy and he's tired, so he takes several hours to haul it back to his shelter.

When he opens the survival pack the next day, he finds tools, weapons, clothing, and a large supply of food. He realizes this changes everything, making survival in the woods much easier. He also finds an emergency transmitter. He tries to turn it on, but it doesn't do anything, which makes him think it was broken in the plane crash. He makes himself a good dinner from the freeze-dried food, but while he's eating it he hears a plane. The transmitter has worked. The pilot of a small plane heard it and came to investigate. Once the man arrives, he recognizes Brian from the rescue broadcasts about him. Brian has lived at the lake for 54 days. His time there changes him forever. He can never bring himself to tell his father about his mother's infidelity.

Hatchet Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action


1 Brian flies north to spend the summer with his father.

Rising Action

2 The pilot has a heart attack, and the small plane crashes.

3 Brian creates a shelter and finds berries nearby.

4 Brian learns to make fire using sparks from his hatchet.

5 Brian learns to fish using a bow and arrow he makes himself.

6 A plane flies over, but it leaves and does not return.

7 Brian loses hope, attempts suicide, fails, and opts to live.

8 A moose attacks Brian and nearly kills him.

9 A tornado tears Brian's shelter apart.

10 The tornado partially exposes the submerged plane.


11 Brian retrieves the survival pack from the plane.

Falling Action

12 Brian finds a rifle, food, and a transmitter in the pack.

13 The emergency transmitter from the pack signals for help.

14 Brian is rescued when a bush pilot responds to the signal.


15 Brian is changed forever by his experiences.

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