Why Everyone Needs to Read Hatchet (Not Just 6th Graders)

Reading for Work? Heaven.

I’ve recently started teaching 5th and 6th grade Language Arts classes (basically English Class, I’m not quite sure what’s up with the fancy title).   As I’ve been lesson planning, I’ve had the pleasure of devouring several wonderful books (reading for work?  I’ve died and gone to heaven).

I don’t know if I just didn’t read as a pre-teen, but it seems like there are a ton of classic 5th and 6th grade level books that I haven’t read (A Wrinkle in Time, The Giver, Number the Stars, Fever 1793, Esperanza Rising).  (Or maybe it was during the phase when all I read was Harry Potter over and over and over again).

Although many of these books are wonderful, one has hit me right in the gut (in a good way, if that’s even possible).  One that you need to read and your kids need to read and your friends need to read and their kids need to read and that random guy in the car next to you needs to read.  Hatchet by Gary Paulson.


Hatchet is the story of a thirteen-year-old boy, Brian Robeson, who is struggling to cope with the divorce of his parents.  On the flight to visit his father, the plane he’s on crashes and he’s left stranded and alone in the Canadian wilderness.  He’s faced with the task of surviving alone.

I read some of the challenges Brian faced and scoffed, thinking: there’s no way a 13-year-old boy could handle that.  But then I would re-read the section.  Paulson has constructed every section with so much reality and honesty.  Brian only has knowledge a boy that age would know.  He messes up and struggles as a boy that age would.  


Immense Struggles

It seems that nowadays pre-teen books are all exaggerated dystopias (I’m thinking of the Hunger Games variety).  What’s awesome about Hatchet is it has similar themes—youth faced with immense struggle—but it is so real.  The immense struggles are ones that some of my students face: divorce, loneliness, stress.

What’s more, the wilderness challenges he face are all well within the realm of possibility.  A student reads this and is faced with the thought that this could, maybe, happen to them (Hunger Games, not so much)—which is what makes the lessons so much more powerful.


The Dark Cave

There are poignant moments in which Brian is overwhelmed, frustrated, depressed, and desires nothing more than to give up.  Through real despair, Brian learn and grows:

“He did not know how long it took, but later he looked back on this time of crying in the corner of the dark cave and thought of it as when he learned the most important rule of survival, which was that feeling sorry for yourself didn’t work. It wasn’t just that it was wrong to do, or that it was considered incorrect. It was more than that–it didn’t work.”

I’ve copied this quote and I keep closely accessible I definitely have caught myself “crying in the corner of the dark cave” sometimes.  But I read this quote, and I realize something so crucial:

Life is going to suck sometimes.  You are strong enough to handle it.  You’re going to mess up.  You can still handle it.  You’re going to be overwhelmed.  You can handle it.  You’re going to be beaten down.  You can handle it.

Self-pity doesn’t work.  Giving in doesn’t work.  But what if you can’t handle it?  When you’re really weak?  Can’t go on?  Want to crawl into a corner and cry?

God can handle it.


Tough Hope

Letting God handle it requires a special type of hope. A strong, real, very Christian brand of hope.  Brian develops such a hope:

“Not hope that he would be rescued–that was gone. But hope in his knowledge. Hope in the fact that he could learn and survive and take care of himself. Tough hope, he thought that night. I am full of tough hope.”

I work with children lost in the woods.  They live in broken homes.  They have lost parents to death, illness, violence, substance abuse, divorce.  I work with children who are bullied, who battle mental disorders, who are drowning in stress and anxiety and loneliness.  

Of course we work to fix what we can, but there are innumerable things we can’t fix.  There are kids we just can’t rescue.

And for a while there I was angry at God.  My every prayer was that God would magically fix their situations.

Hatchet taught me to think differently.  God might not “rescue” these kids, at least, not from an earthly perspective.  But my new prayer is that God will shine through their lives in the form of beautiful, profound, tough hope.

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