Hatchet has been a popular book since its original publication, due in part to its timeless themes of survival and personal growth that rise above trends and didactic messages.
Stephen Fraser reviewed Hatchet in the November 6, 1987 issue of The Christian Science Monitor and praised Paulsen’s work, saying, “The book is as much an inward journey as a wilderness hike. In fact, protagonist Brian Robeson begins to see changes within himself as a kind of spiritual resurrection” (p. B5).
Likewise, Barbara Chatton praised Hatchet in her 1987 School Library Journal review, stating, “As he did in Dogsong (Bradbury, 1985), Paulsen emphasizes character growth through a careful balancing of specific details of survival with the protagonist's thoughts and emotions” (p. 103).
The 1980s young adult literature scene was flooded with serial paperbacks like Scholastic's Wildfire and Bantam's Sweet Dreams, romance titles for girls that enforced the roles of the heavily romanticized 1950s and early 60s. In the mid to late 1980s, thriller serial paperbacks such as Christopher Pike’s horror series and R. L. Stine’s Fear Street series, both of which stretched into the early 1990s, an era that saw the “near-death experience” of young adult literature, gave the romance serials some hefty competition in the boy and girl demographics (Cart, 2010, pp. 37-49). The elevated level of teenagers working jobs and possessing disposable income drove the success of these serial paperbacks. By the end of the 1980s, the U.S. was beginning to experience “future shock” due to new patterns of massive immigration. During the rise of multiculturalism and a type of political correctness Cart describes as “multiculturalism without a sense of humor,” several “literarily and culturally important new voices” debuted, including Gary Paulsen (2010, pp. 41, 47).
Because the book’s main character, Brian Robeson, is stranded on a lakeside patch of forest in the Canadian north woods, it doesn’t much matter in what decade the story takes place. While the tale includes flashbacks investigating Brian’s pain from carrying his mother’s Secret—he saw her kissing a man in a station wagon, leading to his parents’ divorce—that only helps situate the novel in the post-atomic family era of the 1950s. It is precisely due to Paulsen’s ability to transcend race and nationality, coupled with hitting the new boy-reader bullseye, that Hatchet was such a success in the 1980s. Indeed, legendary publisher Charlotte Zolotow’s statement that “The more original you are in publishing, the harder it is to be commercially successful but good writing survives trends” (Cart, 2010, p. 41) applies to Hatchet’s endurance, but Paulsen himself has escaped commercial failure by finding a new audience (boys), writing cross-cultural stories of survival, and by giving the readers more of what they want in the following Brian books.
Benjamin Koby, a 6th grade student and second place winner of the Kentucky English Bulletin’s 2008 Book Review Contest, closed his review of Hatchet by enthusiastically asserting, “This is an unbelievable story. I think I could read it 100 times and never get bored. I would recommend it to anyone who loves a high stakes adventure game” (p. 79).
Hatchet furthermore stands the test of time, being characterized by Teri S. Lesesne in a 2014 essay as “indicative of the philosophy of Rousseau and the writing of Defoe and others of an earlier time in children’s literature. Man is at his best when he is in harmony with nature” (p. 215). It is perhaps here we can ask to which canon Hatchet belongs: to the canon of significance or the canon of sentiment?
The canon of sentiment exists above the markets truly driven by children, but below the unpopular canon of significance, which sees academic-level study of a work whose actual text may have been forgotten while its reputation endures in the popular memory. Works belonging to the canon of sentiment avoid a connection with the lower status of a child-driven success and are confirmed in the proclivity of adults to purchase expensive, annotated, hardback versions of such titles (Stevenson, 1997, p. 118). The 20th anniversary edition of Hatchet under review in this report is an example of this—with Paulsen’s introduction that sheds retrospection on the title, and his annotations that discuss reader responses over the years, the edition is aimed at mature readers who cherish the importance of the book in their childhood, while still considering it useful to their children, the first time readers. As Stevenson says, “The sentimental canon of children’s literature depends upon a text’s ability to call up a connection with childhood even more than a connection with children,” and functions as a mechanism of preservation (1997, pp. 120, 115). In contrast, the “academic canon of significance exists to justify, document, chronicle, or explain,” and even if it “can contain books of great merit and worth that might otherwise be overlooked, a text's recovery to that canon will never translate to the canon of sentiment” (Stevenson, 1997, pp. 115, 128).
Stevenson’s false dichotomy mostly deals with the recovery of a text being mutually exclusive to the canon of significance rather than the canon of sentiment, as well as arguing that both canons function outside of children’s popular choice as exhibited in childhood. Much of Hatchet’s popularity is attributable to it being used as curriculum in middle schools: In an article published in the English Journal in 2001, Susan Nelson Wood tells the remarkable story of Hatchet’s influence on her largely male class of reluctant readers. Indeed Wood herself introduced the book as required reading to her class of middle schoolers, but their homegrown engagement spurred her to call Paulsen and invite him to visit their Kentucky school. His promise to visit catalyzed a year long program of preparation for “Gary Paulsen Day,” which culminated in presentations from woodshop class, art class, and English class. This seals the book’s status in the canon of sentiment while simultaneously transcending any need for it to be subsumed by the canon of significance. Just as Paulsen says in his novel The Winter Room, so too does Hatchet function as a call to arms: “If books could have more, give more, be more, show more, they would still need readers, who bring to them sound and smell and light and all the rest that can’t be in books. The book needs you” (Wood, 2001, p. 69).