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Young Adult Books

One Boy's Solitary Fight for Survival

December 12, 1987|FRANCES WARD WELLER | Frances Ward Weller's most recent young adult novel is "Boat Song" (Macmillan)

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen; (Bradbury Press: $12.95; 195 pages)

For writer and reader, a novel virtually devoid of dialogue seems a daunting prospect; dialogue illuminates character, varies pace and advances plot. But for 165 of "Hatchet's' " 195 pages, Gary Paulsen's protagonist is a solitary castaway on a lake shore in the Canadian northland.

It's a measure of Paulsen's skill and the built-in dynamic of his story that--despite the dearth of dialogue--character development, plot and pace never falter. As demonstrated in other novels like his lyrical "Dogsong," a 1986 Newbery Honor Book, Paulsen is a master impressionist of landscapes, interior and exterior. The primary dialogue of "Hatchet" is that of mind and spirit.

Thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson is aboard a two-seat bush plane, anticipating summer with his father and a chance to come to terms with his parents' recent divorce, when the pilot suffers a fatal heart attack. Brian survives ditching in an unknown lake and struggles ashore to confront the wilderness with nothing but his own resourcefulness and the hatchet slung on his belt, a parting gift from his mother.

Means of Survival

Unschooled in survival skills but bright, gutsy and ultimately able to laugh at his own ineptness, he progresses in 54 days from devising rudimentary shelter to making fire, crafting spears, and corraling fish--meanwhile surviving also onslaughts of porcupine, moose and finally tornado.

Encounters with bears and wolves are epiphanies, important in Paulsen's subtle portrayal of the boy's evolving harmony with nature. By the time the storm blows his new world apart, Brian is strong enough to think: "I might be hit but I'm not done. . . . I still have the hatchet. That's all I had in the first place." And, ironically, the storm provides the means for his deliverance.

Paulsen's plot is seamless. Brian has hung the hatchet on his belt to appease his guilt for bitterness toward his mother, who precipitated the divorce. Through all his trials and triumphs the hatchet is his means of survival--and the extension of new-found inner resources that promises to help him survive the upheaval in his normal life as well.

This is powerful writing. Paulsen varies tone and tempo by combining spare, laconic lines of monosyllables with long word-weavings that have the refrains and rhythms of villanelles and the sense of a ruminating mind. Following the story's perfect, triumphant, understated ending is an epilogue that explains some mysteries of Brian's adventure and considers its lasting impact on his life. Journalistic rather than poetic, it is something of an aesthetic and emotional letdown, but satisfying in resolving questions and giving the story the air of a true happening.

Hard-Won Wisdom

An accomplished outdoorsman, Paulsen writes with authority of wilderness survival. It stretches credibility to assign a young tenderfoot such esoteric feats as sidling up to a hunted grouse or diving to the lake's bottom. But caught in the story's flow, I willingly suspended disbelief. Realistically tempering Brian's more unlikely achievements are his slow grasping of his plight, his lapses into despair, and his remaining fallible. When he observes, "So much of this, so much of all living was patience and thinking," one feels not that the writer preaches, but that here is wisdom hard won, a natural outgrowth of the story.

Like most splendid books, "Hatchet" can be read on many levels. It is a sensitive but unsentimental portrayal of a city boy's awakening to nature's wonder, a poignant portrait of a beleaguered spirit achieving self-reliance, and for readers who have been more sheltered, an eloquent appreciation of the bare necessities of life.

But "Hatchet" is first and foremost a humdinger of an adventure story. I defy anyone who reads its first gripping chapter to leave this book unfinished.

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