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Brian Robeson is a kid with a problem. Well, no—he starts out as a kid with a problem, but he quickly becomes a kid with a PROBLEM. If he thinks he's having a rough time coping with his parents' divorce, wait until he sees what's coming down the pike.
One of the most noticeable things about our main character is that he's, well, um—just not that noticeable. There's nothing about him, personally, that really makes him stand out from the crowd. Not that he isn't a nice kid—it's just that some books give you a main character who's unlike anyone you've known before, and Brian is just not that kind of protagonist.
He's not, for instance, a desperately poor but pure-hearted boy who wins out in the end because of his greatness of heart and sweetness of spirit. He's not a depressed, phony-obsessed, sorta-crazy teenager on the run from authority. He's not a Character with a capital C.
Instead, Brian is a boy-next-door type, kind of an everyday kid. He's the quiet (but not too quiet) boy who sits next to you in Social Studies. He may not be the captain of the football team, but he's not the last one picked in gym class, either. He's just an ordinary kid, who suddenly finds himself in an extraordinary situation. Hatchet, ultimately, is more about what happens to Brian than about Brian himself, so that fact that he's not that unusual helps readers imagine themselves right there with him in the wilderness.
Okay, so Brian may be just an average kid, but that doesn't mean that he doesn't have his strong points. By the time you get just a little ways into reading Hatchet, you have to notice that Brian, despite his uncertainty about himself and his place in the world, is a pretty smart kid.
Look at what he does when he has a problem—whether it's how to catch a fish, how to keep warm, or how to build a raft. He looks at what he's got, and at where he wants to get, and then he cobbles together something that might have a chance to work for him (if he's lucky). He's determined, and when something doesn't work, he tries something else. He's got a practical, hands-on kind of smarts.
It's not so much that Brian is book smart—we're not saying that he's necessarily the number one pick for your Math Olympiad team—but he knows how to figure things out. And that's absolutely the best kind of smart there is for someone in his situation.
So Brian's basically a normal kid with a knack for problem-solving. But he's also, as we mentioned before, a kid with a problem. When we first meet Brian, he's pretty troubled, struggling with the breakup of his family and the loss of everything he thought he could rely on. He's all torn up inside, having lost, as he sees it, "[h]is home, his life—all the solid things" (1.9).
As devastating as divorce can be, though, Brian's dealing with an even more difficult situation. He's harboring a secret knowledge about the family breakup, and about his mother's motivations: he saw her kissing a strange man in a car months before she asked for the divorce. As a result, he's filled with a "hot white hate of […] anger" (1.49) toward her. He hasn't spoken to his mother about what he saw, and he's tormented by the fact that he hasn't been able to bring himself to share "the Secret" with his father either.
Wow. Can you imagine what this must be like? Not to go all sappy on you or anything, but this is Brian's momma we're talking about. The person who's been there for him since he was a little kid, packing his lunches, kissing him goodnight, taking care of him "when he was small and sick, with a cold, and she put her hand on his forehead" (1.52). Sheesh, no wonder he's upset.
Suddenly, in one moment, he's been made to see his mother in a whole new way—as a person with a life completely separate from the life he knows, a life she's been hiding from everyone. Maybe she's not who he thought she was all this time. Maybe everything he's counted on is wrong. He's not sure he can ever trust her again, and he's not sure how to live with that. Now that's gotta hurt.
So Brian's pretty messed up at the beginning of the book. Actually, the description of Brian's emotional state just after the pilot's heart attack is also a great representation of where he is in general at this point in his life:
He was stopped. Inside he was stopped. He could not think past what he saw, what he felt. All was stopped. (1.71)
Brian is in a place where he just can't figure out how to go forward; he doesn't know how to get over what's happened and go on with his life. He's feeling totally alone, and he's scared. He doesn't know how to pick up the shattered pieces of his life, how to be Brian now that everything he knew is in question.
Just to throw a wrench into the works, our nice, friendly author tosses a plane crash at this poor boy and strands him all alone in the wilderness. When it rains it pours, huh? The cool thing about Brian, though, is that he's up to the challenge. Like we said before, he's a smart kid, and he's pretty good at thinking things through even when he's in a crazy-dangerous, my-head's-on-fire kind of situation. He stays as calm as he can, approaches his problems thoughtfully and creatively, and does what he needs to survive. Oh, and he has a fair bit of luck, too.
The pivotal moment for Brian, of course, comes at the end of chapter 12, when the rescue plane comes…and goes, after he fails to get the signal fire going in time. Up until this point, Brian's focus has been on keeping himself alive just long enough to last until he's rescued. As the plane disappears in the distance, though, he's forced to confront the fact that no rescue will be coming and he's likely to be on his own for a long time. Major womp womp.
Brian's first response to the realization that no one is going to come bail him out is to sink into absolute despair:
Gone, he thought finally, it was all gone. […]
He could not play the game without hope; could not play the game without a dream. They had taken it all away from him now, they had turned away from him and there was nothing for him now. (12.29-30)
Does this feeling remind you of anything? How about that "stopped" feeling Brian has at the beginning of the book in response to the drama going down with his family?
And check this out. This is a kid who finds "tough hope" (13.37) after realizing he'll never be rescued. It's "hope in the fact that he could learn and survive and take care of himself" (13.36). In a way, it's exactly this kind of faith in himself and in his ability to survive adversity that he had been lacking at the beginning of the book in facing his parents' divorce. What do you know?
It's not that all of Brian's problems are suddenly solved, or even that he's found peace with his family situation. (At the end of the book, after all, he's still not able to share the secret with his father.) But he's found a way to go forward, a way to go on even knowing that "all the solid things" he's known in the past may not always be there for him.
He's learned to rely on himself and his own resourcefulness, and to have faith that he can see himself through. After he's achieved that kind of self-reliance, getting rescued is really just a bonus.