Some books smack of polish. The prose is heavy with the weight of old creative writing classes or mimickry of past literary idols.
Sometimes the polish even drips and coagulates into globs at the bottom of the page. It’s as if we can smell the coffee from the Starbucks where the author sat, back in February of 1998, when she first read Hemingway and, looking out the window at the drab Seattle rain, dreamt of one day living in New York City and ‘being an author’. Or else we hear the writer’s impatient fingers upon the keyboard at his office in the community college’s English department, desperately trying to ‘find his voice’ the way he tells his students to, rather than just telling a story.
Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet is certainly not one of these books. The prose has no polish whatsoever. As a result, the writing is crude, almost to the point of distraction. Choppy. Fragments of sentences, running on. An attempt. An attempt to convey the protagonist’s panicked state of mind. A heavy-handed abuse of language. At least in my opinion.
But what Paulsen lacks in literary finesse, he more than makes up for with the quality of his story. The tale is a simple one – a teenage boy named Brian survives the crash of a single engine plane and must learn to live in the Canadian wilderness, with only the eponymous hatchet and the clothes on his back.
Like all great stories, Paulsen has no need to mimic other writers, or to worry about finding a voice. He simply tells Brian’s story, and that is more than enough for the reader to suspend disbelief; to join Brian in the woods, rejoicing with him over every little comfort, salivating at the taste of berries and fish in the starving boy’s mouth.
I understand completely why this book has become a favourite of high school English teachers. And as is the case with all good young adult fiction, it reads just as well, even if you are much older.