Survival is the most overarching theme of Hatchet, and this basic tenet of the force of life has the power to transcend social and economic status of readers while at the same time mirroring the struggles urban youth readers may face “on the street.” For this reason, the book captures the attention and imagination of all levels of readers from a variety of backgrounds, as physical survival, emotional survival, and the application of learned knowledge as skills are universal truths.
On a purely literal level, Brian has to first survive the plane going down, which involves a little bit of skill and mostly good luck, and then he has to survive living in the Canadian north woods without supplies or easy access to food. During this process, Brian has to conjure up what he can remember learning thus far in his life, and in this way the value of reading and learning is given character intrinsic to survival. One of the first memories that comes to him, when trying to decide if the lake water is safe to drink, is seeing movies where the hero drinks from clear spring water (p. 49), and he remembers movies and news clips of searches for lost planes (p. 51) as well as movies in where the hero easily finds a plant to eat or has access to a trap to catch an animal to eat (p. 52). Finally, Brian draws on his memory of his old English teacher, Perpich, “who was always talking about being positive, thinking positive, staying on top of things” (p. 53) and channels Perpich’s tough love motivational attitude when giving himself his own pep talks. As the story continues, Brian draws on his reservoir of learning by remembering the shelters that his friend Terry and he would build when horsing around in the park back home (pp. 59-60); Brian asks himself “What had he read or seen that told him about food in the wilderness?” and remembers a television show about air force pilots undergoing survival training, which inspires him to forage for berries (pp. 62-63); Brian tries to remember what any of his teachers had ever said about fire, eventually realizing his fire needs the fuel of oxygen to catch (pp. 93-94); and as a last example, Brian catches his first fish by remembering, probably from Biology class, that water bends light, which had been throwing off his aim (p. 125).
Brian also must compute new lessons almost immediately when confronted by the laws of nature that rule everything around him on the edge of the forest by the lake. When he awakens to see a skunk laying claim to the turtle eggs Brian has secured in his shelter, he learns the hard way to “protect food and have good shelter”—the skunk couldn’t care less that Brian had first discovered the eggs or that Brian was thrashing around like a “dying carp” trying to get the awful spray out of his eyes (p. 133). His own self pity in these situations does not help, and as he grows stronger, he tries to banish these feelings that cause him to break down and cry, which leads him to his ultimate mode of survival.
Above all Brian must develop the skills to survive psychologically and emotionally, because discovering and prioritizing his motivation for living is the basis for all the steps he takes to insure he can physically survive. When nearly two-thirds of the way through the book, a search plane flies over Brian’s camp and does not detect him, Brian sinks into an extreme emotional low upon realizing that “He was alone and there was nothing for him” (p. 118). He has survived for four days but cannot fathom surviving indefinitely, cannot fathom “play[ing] the game without hope,” and faces his own mortality that evening by attempting suicide (p. 118). It is here that Brian’s great turning point arrives, when he wakes up the next morning and inspects the dried bits of blood on his arms and realizes that he is no longer the same Brian—in the wake of the disappointment of the plane passing, he has been reborn as the new Brian, a boy that would not let death in again. In this precise crux of despair and incitement, he isolates his motivation for surviving by identifying his hope: “...hope in his knowledge. Hope in the fact that he could learn and survive and take care of himself,” (p. 129).