If Gary Paulsen taught readers one lesson, it was to always carry a hatchet into the woods. But if he taught us a second lesson, it was to occasionally pack a notebook, too.
Paulsen, who died Oct. 13, 2021, is best remembered for his 1986 Newberry Honor-winning young adult adventure book, Hatchet, whose lead character—13-year-old Brian Robeson—taught a generation of city kids like me that if we kept our wits about us, and held our hatchets close, we might just survive in the wild.
Thankfully, most of us never had to test the accuracy of that lesson. Especially me, whose every encounter with a can opener ended in stitches. I knew I was no match for a bear, or a porcupine, or a moose. And I knew, too, that in my incapable hands, a hatchet was more of a liability than a lifeline.
Yet for reluctant readers, Hatchet was a lifeline. Even my least literary friends burned through its pages faster than a fire kindled by Brian Robeson himself. The book went on to sell more than 4.5 million copies, prompting Paulsen to write four additional books featuring Brian’s trials in the wilderness. By book five, I began to wonder: how much trouble can one kid get into in the woods?
Hatchet fans didn’t care. Suspension of disbelief was a small price to pay for a few more adventures with Brian.
Meanwhile, I spent my adolescence admiring Gary Paulsen’s far humbler hero—14-year-old Wil Newton, the main character in Paulsen’s 1988 book The Island. If you’ve never heard of The Island, you’re hardly alone. While Kirkus Reviews bestowed Hatchet with a coveted starred review, hailing it as “a winner,” the kindest remark Kirkus could muster for the The Island was that it would “appeal most to the unusual reader.”
At Wil Newton’s age, I was that unusual reader, preferring The Island to Hatchet because I preferred Wil to Brian Robeson. While Brian’s plight centered on a singular purpose—survival—Wil was navigating something that defied back cover copy. When he and his family move to a former logging town in Wisconsin, Wil begins embarking upon daily pilgrimages to an uninhabited island just a few miles outside of town, spending his days—and eventually his nights—studying nature’s rhythms, and writing and sketching in his notebook.
While Brian Robeson remains in constant conflict with nature, Wil Newton seeks out harmony within it, recalibrating his life by way of his self-imposed solitude on the island. According to the book flap, Wil is “trying to see through the kernel of clear truth hidden in the cluttered world around him.”
Which was a far cry from what Hatchet readers had come to expect.
Those who’d reveled in Brian’s MacGyver-like resourcefulness were puzzled by Wil’s quiet, introspective journey. Thirty-three years after The Island’s publication, I can still hear the echo of some exasperated editor whose pleading margin note surely read: Maybe add a few more bears?
While Gary Paulsen penned dozens of adventure books (many of which found homes within the Brian’s Saga series, and the Mr. Tucket Saga series, and a series aptly titled World of Adventure), it’s his more understated, “anti-adventure” works that continue to resonate with readers like me. Books like The Island, of course, but also The Haymeadow, The Monument, The Winter Room, and The Voyage of the Frog. Each of these relies upon young characters tiptoeing toward the existential, confronting life and death and the natural world in a manner with more universal implications than some of Paulsen’s more rip-roaring adventures.
While Hatchet provided readers with some much-needed escapism, The Island centered its focus on what we can never escape—mortality, which, in the immediate aftermath of Paulsen’s passing, now takes on new significance.
In the spring of 1999, shortly after the release of Brian’s Return—the fourth book in the Brian’s Saga series—I shared a brief encounter with Gary Paulsen at a bookstore where I’d later work. At some point during our 30 second conversation, I made mention of how much I’d enjoyed The Island, and how it had spoken to me. Paulsen halted his autographing pen, our eyes momentarily locked.
“Is that right?” he asked. “Well, I’m glad to hear that.”
A few decades later, when I was nearly twice Wil Newton’s age, I, too, moved to a former logging town in Wisconsin. With a population of 60,000, my town was far larger than Wil’s, though it shared similarities—namely, an island not far from my home. By that point in my life, I was too old to pull off any adolescent-inspired journeys of self-discovery, though that hardly kept me from trying.
That August, when the river was low, I buckled into a life jacket and made the 50-or-so-yard swim to the island’s shoreline. While Wil’s island was a true example of untouched wilderness, mine came complete with a strand of telephone lines and the Highway 12 bridge humming with not-so-distant traffic. Still, I ventured deep into that island’s shadowy interior, where all traces of human presence (a few busted beer bottles and shards of a porcelain plate) soon gave way to something wilder: water ripples, frogs, and the occasional great blue heron. That afternoon, I studied flowers and rubbed tree bark to dust in my hands. I made careful note of the various textures of rocks and touched muck and nearly strained my ears trying to hear silence.
There were no bear sightings that day, though that was probably for the best.
After all, I’d forgotten my hatchet.
But I remembered my notebook.