ALAN v26n3 - Survival as a Bridge to At-Risk Readers: Applications of Gary Paulsen's Hatchet To an Integrated Curriculum

Volume 26, Number 3
Spring 1999

Survival as a Bridge to At-Risk Readers:
Applications of Gary Paulsen's Hatchet to an Integrated Curriculum

Cynthia G. Unwin and Brian Palmer

For at-risk young people who run the streets of our cities, towns and rural communities, life is often lived on the edge and in the shadow of violence. Physical trauma can be a daily fact of life: shootings, stabbings, drug deals gone bad, predatory relationships. For many of these middle school and high school adolescents, survival in the social jungle is something learned at an early age. Much like learning the tools of a trade, street kids develop "skills" to make it--or they don't make it. They figure out one of the cardinal rules of street survival: keep a low profile.

One of an educator's biggest challenges is to find literary material that engages his or her students' interests, content that "hooks" those students who find traditional literary works boring at best or obscure and irrelevant at worst. Fortunately, middle grades and high school teachers have a wealth of appealing, thought-provoking pieces of literature with which to entice young skeptics. One example of an adolescent novel that appeals to hesitant readers is Gary Paulsen's Hatchet . This riveting story begins in a twin-prop airplane making its way over the Canadian wilderness, as Brian, the novel's main character, travels to visit his father following his parents' traumatic divorce. Within a couple of chapters, the pilot of the plane has died of a heart attack, Brian has landed the plane into a lake, and he has made his way to shore with only a hatchet as a survival tool. What follows is one spellbinding account after another of Brian's fight against and eventual communion with the forces of nature and his own sense of self. Paulsen's unique combination of stunted phrasing and sentences that never stop takes the reader on a roller coaster ride of anticipation and breathlessness.

Hatchet has possible applications to a variety of subject areas. Used as a springboard for language arts instruction, Hatchet provides meaningful opportunities for the teacher to direct students' attention toward survival skills as they relate to the urban environment. Students can be encouraged to think about and compare essential survival skills to merely desirable ones. The novel can be the touchstone for serious exploration by students as to what really matters in life and what is simply nice to know. In addition, if used as part of an integrated unit, the setting and events of the novel lend themselves easily to studies of a variety of mathematical, scientific, and sociologic concepts.

What follows is a flexible thematic unit that can be adjusted to teach Hatchet with at-risk students in the middle grades and high school. Although the vocabulary and structural elements of Hatchet are not particularly demanding, the content provides stimulating avenues for discussion, writing, and acquisition of content knowledge that speak directly to the lives of many students.

Introduction: Hatchet is the story of Brian Robeson's survival for 54 days in the Canadian wilderness, following the crash of a small airplane in which he was the lone survivor. Pre-reading discussion questions: What does the word "survival" mean to you? If you do not die, but spend your the rest of your life alone in the wilderness, do you consider that "survival?" Does survival require that one return to civilization to fit the definition? Or does survival simply mean being alive?

Chapter 1:
Brian is alone in a plane after the pilot suffers a heart attack. Whole class discussion: The first four chapters of Hatchet are dramatic and exciting, in part because of the way the author describes events leading to the plane crash. When do we get the notion that something is wrong with the pilot? List the things that happen to the pilot as he suffers his fatal heart attack. How do these events work to make this part of the story more exciting?

Applications to the content areas:

Science: Examine the causes and risk factors of heart attacks, as well as the bodily events that occur during a heart attack. How can heart attacks be prevented? What is appropriate first aid for a heart attack victim? Write letters to the American Heart Association and conduct Internet research on these topics. Invite a guest speaker (e.g., a cardiologist) to share information on these topics.

Geography: Examine the various climate zones of Canada. What is timberline and why do trees not grow above timberline? What types of plants grow on the tundra and why is it important to preserve these plants?

Mathematics: Calculate possible location of the plane at the time of the pilot's heart attack.

Chapter 2:
Brian flies the plane until it runs out of fuel. Group discussion: Brian's knowledge of "the Secret" affects his relationship with his mother. Young people often have problems getting along with their parents. Divorce usually makes the problems worse. Do you think Brian's reaction to his mother's action in giving him the hatchet was fair? Had she given him a Tommy Hilfiger shirt instead, would he have been happier? Would the shirt have helped him as much as the hatchet in the wilderness?

Chapter 3:
The plane slams into tree tops, then sinks in the lake. Individual activity: The author effectively uses words to help us form a mental picture of what is happening to Brian as the plane crashes. On a sheet of unlined paper, use a pencil to draw what you see in your mind's eye as the plane's wings come in contact with the pine trees just before it hits the lake. In your drawing, try to show the plane, the clearing, the trees and the lake. These do not have to be fine works of art. Merely try to suggest what you see in your mind.

Applications to the content areas Science and math: Study principles of aeronautics; take field trip to local airport and learn the function of different cockpit controls, the function and purpose of airplane wings, rudders, flaps, etc. Investigate the relationships between altitude, speed, and distance and the ways these are measured. Discuss map scale, and plot Brian's direction, distance, and altitude as he takes over the plane. Study principles of radio communication and the reasons why Brian might have lost contact in the air.

Chapter 4:
Brian survives, but is injured and afraid. Individual activity: Assume you become separated from your camping buddy in the middle of a huge national forest. You have no idea how to get out and must find ways to survive until help comes to you. Make a list of items you must have to survive. List only things that are essential to your survival. Be prepared to share these with the class.

Applications to the content areas:

Science and Health: Study the body's reaction to shock and relate to Brian's experience after the crash in Hatchet ; study first aid treatment for shock.

Geography: Identify the trees and animals that Brian saw upon his first investigation of the area surrounding the lake.

Chapter 5:
Brian is coming to terms with his situation, and is getting motivated. Individual activity: A large part of survival for Brian involves motivation. He remembers the advice of a teacher who said he should think positively and motivate himself. In life, we all need some form of motivation to stimulate us. Think about the positive things in life that motivate you. Make a list of those things that motivate you to get up every day and do your best. Are these motivators extrinsic or intrinsic?

Applications to the content areas:

Math and Geography: Explain mathematically why Brian's hope that he would be rescued based on the pilot's flight plan is unrealistic. Illustrate on a map a plausible flight plan filed by the pilot in this novel and how this might differ from Brian's actual location. Account for this difference using the story's events and mathematical justification.

Science and Health: Research how long a person can survive without water and food. Should Brian have consumed the water in the lake?

Chapter 6:
Brian finds then eats gut cherries. Individual activity: In your journal, write at least a one-page response to what you have read in Hatchet through today. What events stick out in your mind about what happened to Brian? In other words, what do you most recall from the book through Chapter 6? Why do those events stand out in your memory?

Applications to the content areas:

Creative arts: In small groups, recreate models of Brian's shelter, using paper mache and natural materials found outside. What are potential problems with Brian's shelter so far? Chapter 7: Brian meets a bear, and learns respect but not fear. Class discussion: In Chapter 7, Brian learns an important survival lesson from his encounter with the bear. What is that lesson? Why do you think Brian was afraid of the bear at first? Where did he get his knowledge of bear behavior before he met this one in the wilderness?

Chapter 8:
Brian meets a porcupine, and inadvertently discovers sparks for fire. Luck plays an important role in Brian's survival, as in, for example, how he sees the sparks from the hatchet when he throws it at the porcupine. Brian then turns that luck to his own advantage. Think of at least three other examples of "Brian's Luck" through Chapter 8.

Applications to the content areas:

Social Studies and Science: Research the origins of man-made fire. How is fire created? How did man first generate fire? How are the ways we currently generate fire similar to or different from the ways early man created fire? How has man's use of fire changed the course of history and evolution? In what ways do we use fire today?

Chapters 9-10:
A fire finally starts, and he discovers turtle eggs. Whole class discussion: Brian's success at finally starting a fire and discovering the turtle eggs boosted his spirits and resolve to survive. Think of some successes in your own life (in school, job, family, friends, etc.). Describe some of those successes and how they made you feel. What events and/or attitudes led to those successes?

Chapter 11:
Brian notices changes in his body, and attempts to catch fish. Whole class discussion/individual activity: Brian describes changes in his body as he grows stronger from the rigors of wilderness life. But even more important are the changes in his mind. How can you best describe the basic change in Brian's mental attitude? Why do you think he is becoming more that way? Write your responses in your journal.

How many times does Paulsen repeat the following phrase, or something like it, in Chapter 11: "There were these things to do"? Why does he use this phrase so often? How might this relate to Brian's change of attitude?

Chapter 12:
Brian is in the depths of despair, with little or no hope. Whole class discussion: Chapter 12 ends with Brian in the depths of despair. He seems to lack all hope. Why do you think hope is so important? What do you think Brian means by "lost hope"? If you were in Brian's shoes, would you feel hopeless, too, based on what you know so far?

Chapter 13:
Brian finds new hope, and understands that hope comes from knowledge. Whole class discussion/individual activity: Brian learns a critical lesson in survival attitudes. He's restored to a sense of hope. What does he realize is the greatest factor in restoring a sense of hope in his life? Have you ever felt hopeless? Why? Have you ever found hope in your knowledge of a situation that at first appeared hopeless? Write a one-page response to this chapter and questions.

Applications to the content areas:

Science and Health: Research the clinical definition of depression. Based on what you know from Chapters 11-13, does Brian suffer from clinical depression? How do doctors treat clinical depression? How does Brian react to his feelings of depression in these chapters? What ultimately helps him overcome his depression?

Science and Math: Explain the principles of light refraction and how they apply to Brian's attempt to catch a fish in Chapter 13. Calculate the difference in angle that Brian had to make in order to account for the position of the fish in the water.

Chapter 14:
Brian meets a skunk. Whole class discussion, individual activity: Chapter 14 is about making mistakes and learning from them. Brian learned the hard way that food is the most important driving force in the wilderness. He learned not to take it for granted. In your journal, make a list of at least five things you have learned "the hard way." Why were these important lessons for you? Be prepared to share some of these with the class tomorrow.

Applications to the content areas:

Science: Brian calls himself "new" after his experience with the search plane. In what ways has Brian become more like an animal in his behavior? Use the events in this chapter and at the beginning of Chapter 13 to guide your thinking.

Creative Arts: In groups, reconstruct your original versions of Brian's shelter so that they conform to the changes he has made in this chapter.

Chapter 15:
Brian's first meat ... a foolbird. Whole class discussion: Brian describes the patience it took to finally kill a foolbird for meat. What larger lesson did he learn about providing food for himself in such an environment? Obviously, it's not like going to the local supermarket. Hunting and fishing also take time. How much food would it take to feed you and your family for an average week? What if there was no supermarket?

Chapter 16:
Brian's moose encounter, and a tornado. Whole class discussion: Encounters with the moose and the tornado nearly finish off Brian, but his attitude is different now. How does he react to these two episodes of bad luck? Why is his attitude toward survival different now than it was shortly after the plane crash? Was his luck truly bad? Why or why not?

Applications to the content areas:

Science and Geography: Study the weather conditions that cause tornadoes. What forces affect the strength of a tornado? Study wind velocity and force of tornadoes. Draw a picture of what you envision the lake and terrain looking like after the tornado hit. How often do tornadoes occur in the Canadian Rockies? What other natural disasters might influence the terrain and wildlife in this part of the world? In what ways?

Chapter 17:
The shelter is repaired, and he begins the plane recovery project. Class discussion, individual activity: By the time Brian begins his plane project, he has become more patient with himself and more focused. He has mental plans. How important is being focused on accomplishing your goals in life? Do you have goals? Are you focused on them? In your journal, list at least three important goals that you have set for yourself. If you have no goals, this is a good time to start making them.

Chapter 18:
Brian drops the hatchet, finds the pilot's skull, and achieves ultimate success. Whole class discussion: In the beginning of the novel, bad events such as the dropped hatchet and the gruesome sight of the pilot's skull underwater might have set Brian back severely. By Chapter 18, he possesses the will and determination to survive. How has Brian matured to the point that these events do not break his stride?

Applications to the content areas:

Science and Health: In times of great stress, the human body has remarkable capabilities. Invite a physician or emergence medical technician to speak about the body's endocrine response to stress, and the body's "fight or flight" response. How does this relate to Brian's response to the events in this chapter and to other life-threatening events that have occurred earlier in the book? Discuss with students similar occasions in their lives or in the lives of people they know.

Chapter 19 and Epilogue:
Brian's discovery of the survival pack goodies, and the rescue. Whole class discussion, individual activity: How did the rifle and the lighter in the survival pack remove Brian "from everything around him"(p. 186)? Explain why he has conflicting feelings about these items.

Writers often use prediction to build suspense in a novel. Did you predict how Brian would finally be rescued? Once again, we have knowledge, motivation and a little luck combining for survival. In your journal, tell how these factors came together to pave the way for Brian's rescue at the conclusion of Hatchet . Were you satisfied with the ending of this novel? Why or why not? Do you think Brian could have survived the winter? Explain.

Ideas for Unit Culmination:

Internet research projects: Break students into two or more groups and allow them to pick their project from those listed here or to develop their own Internet research project, if approved by the teacher.

  1. In Hatchet , we read how Brian painstakingly learns to make crude arrows and a bow to kill game for food. He had to develop a skill that took Native Americans years to develop. Using the Internet as your principle resource, find out everything you can about how arrowheads and spear points were made by Indians. What materials were used? How were the points chipped into form? How were they attached to the arrow? How big were arrowheads?
  2. Brian is finally rescued by a pilot who overheard the emergency beacon the young man unknowingly set off when he retrieved the survival kit. Emergency location beacons are now standard equipment on airplanes as well as ships and pleasure craft. Some of these devices involve satellite technology. Using the Internet as your principle resource, find out everything you can about emergency signaling devices: how they are used, how much they cost, how they work. Find examples of how the devices, sometimes called EPIRBs, have been used to rescue people.
  3. Choose one or more of the plants or animals described in Hatchet . Research the animal, compare its behavior to that described in the novel, and establish the authenticity of Paulsen's description in the novel. Prepare a Powerpoint or Hyperstudio presentation on the plant or animal to share with the class.
  4. Brian Robeson had to learn to survive in the Canadian wilderness. In our modern urban society, it takes special skills to survive, though most likely, they are not the same ones Brian learned. Street survival in the city takes its own brand. Survival often has been the subject of music lyrics. For example, the lyrics to Frank Sinatra's "I Did It My Way" are about the troubles he had in life; but as a survivor, he has no regrets because he did it his way. Rap lyricists often write about survival in the ghetto or "thug life." Using the Internet and your own resources, locate some lyrics that concern survival in the real world. Bring them to share with the class.

Writing Activities:

  1. Brian's "secret" troubles him through Hatchet . It is a secret from which Brian cannot escape, even in the Canadian wilderness. Write an essay at least one-half page long. Your essay should address the following questions: What is Brian's secret? How did Brian learn about the secret? Why do you think the author included the secret in this book about survival in the wilderness? Do you think the secret makes Hatchet a better book? Why or why not?
  2. Through several "encounters" with wild animals (like the porcupine), Brian learns sometimes-painful lessons about the natural world he could hardly learn in the city. In an essay at least one-half page long, write about Brian's animal encounters, explaining some of the lessons he learned from the experiences. Your essay should include what happened during the other animal encounters and answer these questions: How do you think you would have reacted to the animals if you had been in Brian's shoes? What would you have done?
  3. After Brian recovers the survival kit from the airplane, he finds the rifle and says it makes him feel less close to his natural surroundings. Although the rifle makes killing animals easier, Brian is not entirely happy with it. Write an essay addressing these questions and others of your own making: Why do you think the rifle made Brian uncomfortable? Do weapons make people more likely to kill and less aware of the consequences of killing? Are there lessons to learn in Hatchet about the use of weapons in modern society?
  4. How might this story be different if its main character were female? Would she have survived? How might she have responded differently to the same challenges and events? Justify your position with examples from the book and from your own experiences.
  5. Read Paulsen's two sequels to Hatchet : The River (1991) and Brian's Winter (1996) . Which of these three novels do you feel was most effectively written? Why? Which of the two sequels did you prefer? Why? Choose one of the two sequels and compare it to Hatchet . How are they similar or different stylistically? How are their themes similar or different?


Gary Paulsen, reflecting about his experiences in writing Hatchet , stated, "What makes Hatchet stand out for me was the research I didÑor rather livedÑfor the book. I have been in forced landings in light planes and had to survive in the woods with little or nothing; virtually everything that happens to Brian in the book has happened in one form or another to me, just in the process of living" (Paulsen, 1987) . Few adolescents will face the actual challenges Brian encountered during his stint in the Canadian wilderness. However, every adolescent encounters a similar journey toward self-awareness and independence. Hatchet redefines survival in the most basic of terms, and heightens the reader's awareness of what living on this earth fully and harmoniously entails. It is more than an adventure story. It is a window to the world, viewed through the eyes of an ordinary and extraordinary adolescent.

Works Cited

Paulsen, G. (1996). Brian's winter. New York: Delacorte Press.

Paulsen, G. (1991). The river. New York: Dell Publishing.

Paulsen, G. (1987). Hatchet. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Cynthia Unwin is an Assistant Professor of Reading Education at Augusta State University, Augusta, Georgia; Ben Palmer, a graduate student at ASU, is also a teacher of 9th grade English at Burke County Alternative High School, in Keysville, Georgia.
Copyright 1999. The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale in any form.

Reference Citation: Unwin, Cynthia G. and Brian Palmer . (1999) . " Survival as a Bridge to Resistant Readers: Applications of Gary Paulsen's Hatchet to an Integrated Curriculum." The ALAN Review, Volume 26, Number 3, pp 9-12.