Brian looked out to the side and saw a small pond and at the edge of the pond some large animal—he thought a moose—standing out in the water. All so still-looking, so stopped, the pond and the moose and the trees, as he slid over them now only three of four hundred feet off the ground—all like a picture. (3.8)
This is how Brian sees the forest below him just before the plane crashes into the lake. Notice how artificial everything looks to him, as though nothing he's seeing is real. The words the narrator uses to describe the scene ("still-looking," "stopped," "like a picture") clue us in to how removed Brian is from the world of nature at this point. Boy, his world is about to be rocked.
Brian opened his eyes and screamed.
For seconds he did not know where he was, only that the crash was still happening and he was going to die, and he screamed until his breath was gone.
Then silence, filled with sobs as he pulled in air, half crying. How could it be so quiet? Moments ago there was nothing but noise, crashing and tearing, screaming, now quiet.
Some birds were singing.
How could birds be singing? (4.10-14)
Waking up after the plane crash, Brian is terrified and shocked by everything he's been through. Nature, though, carries on with business as usual, totally unconcerned—because that's what nature does.
He was in deep woods and didn't have any matches, couldn't make a fire. There were large things in the woods. There were wolves, he thought, and bears—other things. In the dark he would be in the open here, just sitting at the bottom of a tree.
He looked around suddenly, felt the hair on the back of his neck go up. Things might be looking at him right now, waiting for him—waiting for dark so they could move in and take him. (5.70-71)
Brian senses that nature is not always a friendly, happy place to be. We're not in Kansas anymore, are we?
He could do nothing, think nothing. His tongue, stained with berry juice, stuck to the roof of his mouth and he stared at the bear. It was black, with a cinnamon-colored nose, not twenty feet from him and big. No, huge. It was all black fur and huge. He had seen one in the zoo in the city once, a black bear, but it had been from India or somewhere. This one was wild, and much bigger than the one in the zoo and it was right there.
Right there. (7.38-39)
Brian encounters a large wild animal for the first time and is (understandably) overwhelmed and frightened. Not to mention disappointed—he was hoping for Bigfoot. Like so many of his other experiences in the woods, this one is totally different from anything he's known in his past life.
Brian looked back and for a moment felt afraid because the wolf was so…so right. He knew Brian, knew him and owned him and chose not to do anything to him. But the fear moved then, moved away, and Brian knew the wolf for what it was—another part of the woods, another part of all of it. Brian relaxed the tension on the spear in his hand, settled the bow in his other hand from where it had started to come up. He knew the wolf now, as the wolf knew him, and he nodded to it, nodded and smiled. (13.8)
Now that he's been living in the forest for a longer time and he's basically given up hope of being rescued, Brian's whole relationship with the natural world has changed. There seems to be almost a spiritual understanding between Brian and the wolf—rather than being an intruder, Brian sees himself as part of the natural world around him. This ain't no fairy tale, that's for sure.
Early in the new time he had learned the most important thing, the truly vital knowledge that drives all creatures in the forest—food is all. Food was simply everything. All things in the woods, from insects to fish to bears, were always, always looking for food—it was the great, single driving influence in nature. To eat. All must eat. (14.5)
One of the first lessons Brian learns when he's begun to see himself as part of the natural world, rather than as something outside it, is that food is all-important. Here at Shmoop, of course, we already knew that chocolate is all-important, but this whole food insight is a new thing for Brian. Like all the other animals in the forest, Brian is driven by his need to survive.
But those were his eggs, not the skunk's, and the half smile had been quickly replaced with fear that he would lose his food and he had grabbed a handful of sand and thrown it at the skunk.
"Get out of here…"
He was going to say more, some silly human words, but in less than half a second the skunk had snapped its rear end up, curved the tail over, and sprayed Brian with a direct shot aimed at his head from less than four feet away. (14.8-10)
Whoa, this really doesn't sound fun. This episode helps Brian to see—and, um smell—how little he really understands about nature. He may think he's more powerful than a little skunk, but ultimately his "silly human words" can do nothing to protect him.
He had another half-second to fill his lungs with air and she was on him again, using her head to drive him down into the mud of the bottom. Insane, he thought. Just that, the word, insane. Mud filled his eyes, his ears, the horn boss on the moose drove him deeper and deeper into the bottom muck, and suddenly it was over and he felt alone […]
So insane, he thought, letting sleep cover the pain in his chest—such an insane attack for no reason and he fell asleep with his mind trying to make the moose have reason. (16.14, 23)
Even at this point in the book, when Brian has achieved a certain sense of harmony with nature, the creatures and the forest around him can still totally throw him for a loop. He feels a need to try to explain the moose's behavior in a way that's familiar to his human understanding, but the best explanation he can come up with is that the moose was acting "insane." Sounds like a good description to us. Sometimes nature just doesn't make sense.
He looked down at his feet and saw that there were some fish in his fish pen looking for the tiny bits of bait still left from before the wind came. He fought impatience to get on the plane project and remembered sense, remembered what he had learned. First food, because food made strength; first food, then thought, then action. There were fish at hand here, and he might not be able to get anything from the plane. That was all a dream. (17.11)
In the natural world, Brian reminds himself, physical needs like hunger and thirst have to come first, before less immediate goals can be pursued. Being in nature forces Brian, here and elsewhere in the book, to live in the moment and concentrate on the here and now. It's a lesson we could all use—ideally over a glass of milk and a few Oreos.
It was a strange feeling, holding the rifle. It somehow removed him from everything around him. Without the rifle he had to fit in, to be part of it all, to understand it and use it—the woods, all of it. With the rifle, suddenly, he didn't have to know; did not have to be afraid or understand. He didn't have to get close to a foolbird to kill it—didn't have to know how it would stand if he didn't look at it and moved off to the side.
The rifle changed him, the minute he picked it up, and he wasn't sure he liked the change very much. (19.7-8)
After finding the supplies in the survival bag, Brian reflects on how the rifle and the other tools affect his relationship to the wilderness. The advances of modern technology seem to interfere with his understanding of nature and his place in the woods. Do you think that doing things the easy way (like with a gun, instead of a handmade spear, for instance) might ultimately make it harder for Brian to connect with nature?
The scenery was very pretty, he thought, and there were new things to look at, but it was all a green and blue blur and he was used to the gray and black of the city, the sounds of the city. Traffic, people talking, sounds all the time—the hum and whine of the city.
Here, at first, it was silent, or he thought it was silent, but when he started to listen, really listen, he heard thousands of things. Hisses and blurks, small sounds, birds singing, hum of insects, splashes from the fish jumping—there was great noise here, but a noise he did not know, and the colors were new to him, and the colors and noise mixed in his mind to make a green-blue blur that he could hear, hear as a hissing pulse-sound and he was still tired. (4.52-53)
At this point in the book (just after the plane crash), Brian is bewildered by the natural world around him. It's totally different from anything he's known before in the city, and it's totally overwhelming to him. What he first hears as a silence turns out to be full of sound, full of life—right away he has to start adjusting his understanding to his new reality.
"I'm hungry." He said it aloud. In normal tones at first, then louder and louder until he was yelling it. "I'm hungry, I'm hungry, I'm hungry."
When he stopped there was sudden silence, not just from him but the clicks and burps and bird sounds of the forest as well. The noise of his voice had startled everything and it was quiet. He looked around, listened with his mouth open, and realized that in all his life he had never heard silence before. Complete silence. There had always been some sound, some kind of sound.
It lasted only a few seconds, but it was so intense that it seemed to become part of him. Nothing. There was no sound. (5.50-52)
The silence that Brian introduces into the forest by his yelling is a silence deeper and more profound than any silence he's heard before. Just like at other points in the book, the world of nature here gives Brian a brand new perspective on the world he's known in the past; it makes him see things in a new way.
Two years before, he and Terry had been fooling around down near the park, where the city seemed to end for a time and the trees grew thick and came down to the small river that went through the park. It was thick there and seemed kind of wild, and they had been joking and making things up and they pretended that they were lost in the woods and talked in the afternoon about what they would do. Of course they figured they'd have all sorts of goodies like a gun and a knife and fishing gear and matches so they could hunt and fish and have a fire. (6.1)
Brian's memory of the time he played at being lost in the woods with his friend points up how innocent—and ignorant—his view of nature had been before the plane crash. Now the game has become deadly serious, and the park that "seemed kind of wild" is nothing like the wilderness he's come to know since then. Reality check, comin' at you.
Brian leaned against the rock and stared out at the lake. What, in all of this, was there to eat? He was so used to having food just be there, just always being there. When he was hungry he went to the icebox, or to the store, or sat down at a meal his mother cooked. (6.17)
Faced with the baffling task of finding food in the natural world, Brian realizes he doesn't know where to start. Back in the city, of course, food and water and a warm bed—all the necessities—were always within easy reach. Brian's past experience with food, though, makes it seem almost magical. It was, you know, just there. You kind of have to wonder, did Brian ever think about where all that food came from before it showed up at the store, or on the table? Do we ever think about that, or do we just take it for granted that it's going to be there?
He stood and moved out into the sand and looked up at the sun. It was still high. He didn't know what time it must be. At home it would be one or two if the sun were that high. At home at one or two his mother would be putting away the lunch dishes and getting ready for her exercise class. No, that would have been yesterday. Today she would be going to see him. Today was Thursday and she always went to see him on Thursdays. Wednesday was the exercise class and Thursdays she went to see him. (6.27)
At the lake, time is measured by the changing light and the question of when you're going to get your next meal. When you're used to thinking of time in this way, the routine, artificial schedules people live by in the world of civilization seem odd and a little ridiculous.
Up from the water to a small pile of sand, then back down into the water. Some animal. Some kind of water animal that came up to the sand… to do what?
To do something with the sand, to play and make a pile in the sand?
He smiled. City boy, he thought. Oh, you city boy with your city ways—he made a mirror in his hand, a mirror of himself and saw how he must look. City boy with your city ways sitting in the sand trying to read the tracks and not knowing, not understanding. Why would anything wild come up from the water to play in the sand? Not that way, animals weren't that way. They didn't waste time that way. (10.19-21)
Here, Brian laughs at his own mistake. This makes Brian more likeable—you never want to take yourself too seriously, right?—while it also shows how hard he's working to better understand the natural world.
He hadn't thought he would ever be full again, knew only the hunger, and here he was full. One turtle egg and a few handfuls of berries and he felt full. He looked down at his stomach and saw that it was still caved in—did not bulge out as it would have with two hamburgers and a freezy slush. It must have shrunk. And there was still hunger there, but not like it was—not tearing at him. This was hunger that he knew would be there always, even when he had food—a hunger that made him look for things, see things. A hunger to make him hunt. (12.9)
Like at other points in the book, Brian here compares who he is in the woods with who he was in the city. Being "full" in the city sounds a lot like pigging out, whereas being "full" in the woods is a very different thing. With his new appreciation of even the little bit of food he can find, Brian requires less to be satisfied.
Small mistakes could turn into disasters, funny little mistakes could snowball so that while you were still smiling at the humor you could find yourself looking at death. In the city if he made a mistake usually there was a way to rectify it, make it all right. If he fell on his bike and sprained a leg he could wait for it to heal; if he forgot something at the store he could find other food in the refrigerator.
Now it was so different, and all so quick, all so incredibly quick. If he sprained a leg here he might starve before he could get around again; if he missed while he was hunting or if the fish moved away he might starve. If he got sick, really sick so he couldn't move he might starve. (14.1-3)
One of the most important differences between the city and the natural world, of course, is that the stakes are much higher in the natural world. In the city, people are often protected from the consequences of their mistakes. They mess up, they try again. Definitely makes things easier, that's for sure.
It had always been so simple at home. He would go to the store and get a chicken and it was all cleaned and neat, no feathers or insides, and his mother would bake it in the oven and he would eat it. His mother from the old time, from the time before, would bake it. (15.22)
Again, Brian reflects on the ease of getting food back in the civilized world. In the woods, he has to kill the bird himself, then clean it, cook it—the whole shebang. Is it really "so simple" in civilization, though? Although Brian himself doesn't have to prepare the meat, doesn't somebody? What happens in order for it to appear "all cleaned and neat" at the store?
West, he thought. I'm watching the sun set in the west. And that way was north where his father was, and that way east and that way south—and somewhere to the south and east his mother would be. The news would be on the television. He could visualize more easily his mother doing things than his father because he had never been to where his father lived now. He knew everything about how his mother lived. She would have the small television on the kitchen counter on and be watching the news and talking about how awful it was in South Africa or how cute the baby in the commercial looked. Talking and making sounds, cooking sounds.
Not for the first time, Brian thinks about life in the city, and imagines what must be going on there. His mother's concerns—and in a way, the concerns of all the people in the city—seem almost quaint, so detached from the surrounding reality. This invites comparison to Brian's life on the lake, where he must constantly be aware of his immediate surroundings. If only he could get a small kitchen TV out there, too.
Vampires, he thought. Apparently they didn't like the deep of night, perhaps because it was too cool, and they couldn't take the direct sunlight. But in that gray time in the morning, when it began to get warm and before the sun was full up and hot—he couldn't believe them. Never, in all the reading, in the movies he had watched on television about the outdoors, never once had they mentioned the mosquitoes or flies. All they ever showed on the naturalist shows was beautiful scenery or animals jumping around having a good time. Nobody ever mentioned mosquitoes and flies. (4.38)
Didn't anyone ever tell Brian to bring bug spray? We guess not. Brian's "experience" of nature—through television and books—turns out to have missed one of the most fundamental, unavoidable realities he meets when experiencing nature directly: mini blood-suckers.
The backs of his hands were puffy and his eyes were almost swollen shut from the mosquitoes, and he saw everything through a narrow squint.
Not that there was much to see, he thought, scratching the bites. In front of him lay the lake, blue and deep. (4.40-41)
Brian's first impression of the lake is that there isn't much to see. Not so much, B. His first mistake? Thinking that what's on the surface—what's obvious—is all there is.
What had he read or seen that told him about food in the wilderness? Hadn't there been something? A show, yes, a show on television about air force pilots and some kind of course they took. A survival course. (6.22)
Brian is really dragging up every scrap of knowledge he can to help him survive. Oh, and now you can tell your parents that TV isn't all bad, right? Watching it may even be necessary to your survival. Genius.
Close—he was close. He repositioned the nest, made a new and smaller dent with his thumb, and struck again.
More sparks, a slight glow, then nothing.
It's me, he thought. I'm doing something wrong. I do not know this—a cave dweller would have had a fire by now, a Cro-Magnon man would have a fire by now—but I don't know this. I don't know how to make a fire. (9.19-21)
We often think of ourselves as more sophisticated and more knowledgeable about the world than people in the past might have been, right? But Brian realizes that most of us are probably totally clueless when it comes to the basic skills needed for survival. Kind of flips our whole "superior modern man" thing on its head, huh?
What makes fire? He thought back to school. To all those science classes. Had he ever learned what made a fire? Did a teacher ever stand up there and say, "This is what makes a fire…" (9.26)
Brian reflects on the fact that, in all his schooling, he's never studied the practical process of making a fire. Brian may have studied what chemical components make up a fire, but he must have missed the class where they were sent to the woods to try it for themselves.
[The turtle] had come up from the water for a reason, a good reason, and he must try to understand the reason, he must change to fully understand the reason himself or he would not make it. (10.22)
In order to understand the creatures around him, Brian realizes, he needs to learn to think in a whole new way. It's not just a case of missing knowledge, but of developing a totally different way of looking at the world around him.
He had to "invent" the bow and arrow—he almost laughed as he moved out of the water and put his shoes on. The morning sun was getting hot and he took his shirt off. Maybe that was how it really happened, way back when—some primitive man tried to spear fish and it didn't work and he "invented" the bow and arrow. Maybe it was always that way, discoveries happened because they needed to happen. (12.7)
Brian is learning the truth behind the old saying, "necessity is the mother of invention." Again and again in the book we see that Brian's creativity is inspired by the need to adapt and survive. Here Brian recognizes himself as part of a long line of creative humans whose problem-solving skills were the only thing standing between themselves and extinction. Maybe that's what the Google guys were thinking when they came up with their brilliant idea: "Man, I really need to know, right now, how much the average octopus weighs!"
Brian stood at the end of the long part of the L of the lake and watched the water, smelled the water, listened to the water, was the water. (13.1)
In order to catch his prey, Brian has to observe the world around him with complete focus, using all of his senses. Hey, no texting in the woods, dude. Like so many other things that Brian is learning, this is a kind of focus that isn't necessary in the day-to-day life of the city.
A hundred funny cartoons he had seen about skunks. Cute cartoons about the smell of skunks, cartoons to laugh at and joke about, but when the spray hit there was nothing funny about it—he was completely blind for almost two hours. (14.13)
Ah, reality. How you differ from TV. Pepe Le Pew this ain't.
And that had been the secret. He had been looking for feathers, for the color of the bird, for a bird sitting there. He had to look for the outline instead, had to see the shape instead of the feathers or color, had to train his eyes to see the shape […]
It was like turning on a television. Suddenly he could see things he never saw before. In just moments, it seemed, he saw three birds before they flew, saw them sitting and got close to one of them, moving slowly, got close enough to try a shot with his bow. (15.16-17)
Like so much of the wisdom that Brian discovers in the book, his ability to track and successfully hunt the foolbirds isn't so much a piece of information. It's not something that one person can tell to another or something specific that you could learn from a book or a TV show. Instead, it's a whole new way of looking at something, a whole new way of seeing. Kind of like Star Wars 3D, only without pod races.
It was still very early, only just past true dawn, and the water was so calm he could see his reflection. It frightened him—the face was cut and bleeding, swollen and lumpy, the hair all matted, and on his forehead a cut had healed but left the hair stuck with blood and scab. His eyes were slits in the bites and he was—somehow—covered with dirt. He slapped the water with his hand to destroy the mirror.
Ugly, he thought. Very, very ugly. (7.13-14)
This is Brian's first glimpse of himself after the plane crash, and he reacts with anger and fear. Brian's physical changes are just a beginning—wait until he gets a load of the emotional and mental changes still to come.
Outside the rain poured down, but Brian lay back, drinking syrup from the berries, dry and with the pain almost all gone, the stiffness also gone, his belly full and a good taste in his mouth.
For the first time since the crash he was not thinking of himself, of his own life. Brian was wondering if the bear was as surprised as he to find another being in the berries. (7.55-56)
This scene is a little hint of what's to come for Brian. He's already changed a bit from the boy we first met, a boy totally absorbed by thoughts of his difficult family situation. Here we see him beginning to look outward, toward the world around him. Well, toward bears, at least.
He did not know how long it took, but later he looked back on this time of crying in the corner of the dark cave and thought of it as when he learned the most important rule of survival, which was that feeling sorry for yourself didn't work. It wasn't just that it was wrong to do, or that it was considered incorrect. It was more than that—it didn't work. When he sat alone in the darkness and cried and was done, was all done with it, nothing had changed. His leg still hurt, it was still dark, he was still alone, and the self-pity had accomplished nothing. (8.12)
This is a big part of Brian's change in outlook. He's realizing that here in the woods, with no one to rely on but himself, he doesn't have the luxury of self-pity and self-absorption. Being upset about his situation isn't going to change it or make it better.
He had never been fat, but he had been slightly heavy with a little extra weight just above his belt at the sides.
This was completely gone and his stomach had caved in to the hunger and the sun had cooked him past burning so he was tanning, and with the smoke from the fire his face was starting to look like leather. But perhaps more than his body was the change in his mind, or in the way he was—was becoming. (11.7-8)
The changes in Brian's body are a direct result of all the "doing-without" he's gone through in the woods. He's shed extra pounds, and even his skin has become tougher—in nature, anything extra or unnecessary gets left behind. Note: we don't recommend this for your next diet.
I am not the same, he thought. I see, I hear differently. He did not know when the change started, but it was there; when a sound came to him now he didn't just hear it but would know the sound. He would swing and look at it—a breaking twig, a movement of air—and know the sound as if he somehow could move his mind back down the wave of sound to the source.
He could know what the sound was before he quite realized he had heard it. And when he saw something—a bird moving a wing inside a bush or a ripple on the water—he would truly see that thing, not just notice it as he used to notice things in the city. He would see all parts of; see the whole wing, the feathers, see the color of the feathers, see the bush, and the size and shape and color of its leaves. He would see the way the light moved with the ripples on the water and see that the wind made the ripples and which way that wind had to blow to make the ripples move in that certain way. (11.9-10)
Check it out: Brian is totally tuned in to everything around him. It's almost as though he's one great big sensory input machine. He's traveled quite a ways from what he was like when we first met him. Back then, it seemed like he barely saw anything, even if it was right in front of him.
He was not the same now—the Brian that stood and watched the wolves move away and nodded to them was completely changed. Time had come, time that he measured but didn't care about; time had come into his life and moved out and left him different.
In measured time forty-seven days had passed since the crash. Forty-two days, he thought, since he had died and been born as the new Brian. (13.10-11)
The "new Brian." How's that for transformation? It's like he's a totally different person.
He was not the same. The plane passing changed him, the disappointment cut him down and made him new. He was not the same and would never be again like he had been. That was one of the true things, the new things. And the other one was that he would not die, he would not let death in again.
He was new. (13.17-18)
Brian sees his own transformation as total—in his mind he's a completely new person after the rescue plane leaves. Do you think he's right about that? Or is his transformation more gradual?
It was like turning on a television. Suddenly he could see things he never saw before. In just moments, it seemed, he saw three birds before they flew, saw them sitting and got close to one of them, moving slowly, got close enough to try a shot with his bow. (15.17)
Brian's vision—his ability to see the foolbirds—is transformed when he figures out what to look for. This is one of many times in the book that Brian seems to repeatedly fail at something until he's able to change his mental approach. All he really needs is the right way of looking at the world. How about that?
But there is a difference now, he thought—there really is a difference. I might be hit but I'm not done. When the light comes I'll start to rebuild. I still have the hatchet and that's all I had in the first place.
Come on, he thought, baring his teeth in the darkness—come on. Is that the best you can do? Is that all you can hit me with—a moose and a tornado? Well, he thought, holding his ribs and smiling, then spitting mosquitoes out of his mouth. Well, that won't get the job done. That was the difference now. He had changed, and he was tough. I'm tough where it counts—tough in the head. (16.38-39)
Wow. This is a seriously different Brian than the one we see at the beginning of the story, the one who spends page after page worrying and grieving about his parents' divorce. This kid is ready for whatever comes his way.
Many of the changes would prove to be permanent. Brian had gained immensely in his ability to observe what was happening and react to it; that would last him all his life. He had become more thoughtful as well, and from that time on he would think slowly about something before speaking. (Epilogue.3)
Even once he's back home in the city, some of the changes he's experienced stay with Brian. Do you think the new Brian is "better" than the old Brian, or are the changes not really that important outside of the woods?
He started ripping the bark, using his fingernails at first, and when that didn't work he used the sharp edge of the hatchet, cutting the bark in thin slivers, hairs so fine they were almost not there. It was painstaking work, slow work, and he stayed with it for over two hours. Twice he stopped for a handful of berries and once to go to the lake for a drink. Then back to work, the sun on his back, until at last he had a ball of fluff as big as a grapefruit—dry birchbark fluff. (9.16)
Step 1: make a plan. Step 2: follow through. Brian is one determined guy. This is one of Brian's most striking characteristics—and one of the things that helps him stay alive.
He would take [the eggs] now and store them and save them and eat one a day, and he realized as he thought it that he had forgotten that they might come. The searchers. Surely, they would come before he could eat all the eggs at one a day.
He had forgotten to think about them and that wasn't good. He had to keep thinking of them because if he forgot them and did not think of them they might forget about him.
And he had to keep hoping.
He had to keep hoping. (10.43-46)
The idea that he's going to be rescued someday is really important to Brian. It's what allows him to keep hoping, and to find the strength he needs to keep doing what's necessary to survive. Is hope a necessary part of perseverance?
A good laugh, that—cleaning up the camp. All he did was shake out his windbreaker and hang it in the sun to dry the berry juice that had soaked in, and smooth the sand where he slept.
But it was a mental thing. He had gotten depressed thinking about how they hadn't found him yet, and when he was busy and had something to do the depression seemed to leave.
So there were things to do. (11.3-5)
More than once in the book, Brian relies on keeping himself busy and making concrete plans to help buoy his spirits. Just having a goal and the determination to improve his situation a little seems to help him keep truckin'.
He had worked on the fish spear until it had become more than just a tool. He'd spent hours and hours on it. (12.5)
The fish spear is "more than just a tool" because of the hours of work that Brian has put into it. Why is this? Will it catch fish any better than, say, a fish spear that Brian bought at the store? What exactly is it about making the spear himself that makes it so special?
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. The plane gone, his family gone, all of it gone. They would not come. He was alone and there was nothing for him. (12.30)
Without the "dream" of rescue, everything he's been doing suddenly seems pointless and false—just a "game."
To where he wanted to die. He had settled into the gray funk deeper and still deeper until finally, in the dark, he had gone up on the ridge and taken the hatchet and tried to end it by cutting himself.
Madness. A hissing madness that took his brain. There had been nothing for him then and he tried to become nothing but the cutting had been hard to do, impossible to do, and he had at last fallen to his side, wishing for death, wishing for an end, and slept only didn't sleep.
With his eyes closed and his mind open he lay on the rock through the night, lay and hated and wished for it to end and thought the word Clouddown, Clouddown through that awful night. Over and over the word, wanting all his clouds to come down, but in the morning he was still there. (13.13-15)
This is Brian at his lowest moment. Without the hope of being rescued, he sees no reason to go on. We never get to see what happens between the suicide attempt and forty-two-days-later Brian. What do you think changed that allows him to persevere in the end?
Of course he had made a lot of mistakes. He smiled now, walking up the lakeshore after the wolves were gone, thinking of the early mistakes; the mistakes that came before he realized that he had to find new ways to be what he had become. (13.19)
Brian's ability to survive sure isn't based on his natural skills at hunting or making a shelter or building a fire. When you get right down to it, his success comes from his willingness to go forward despite all of his mistakes—his willingness to persevere.
It had been a feast day, his first feast day, and a celebration of being alive and the new way he had of getting food. By the end of that day, when it became dark and he lay next to the fire with his stomach full of fish and grease from the meat smeared around his mouth, he could feel new hope building in him. Not hope that he would be rescued—that was gone.
But hope in his knowledge. Hope in the fact that he could learn and survive and take care of himself.
Tough hope, he thought that night. I am full of tough hope. (13.35-37)
In a note in the 20th-anniversary edition of Hatchet, Gary Paulsen says that if he had a motto, it would probably be "I am full of tough hope." Tough hope, as defined here, is the hope that comes out of despair, the hope that knows that life goes on even though things will not be easy. Got tough hope?
Patience, he thought. So much of this was patience—waiting and thinking and doing things right. So much of all this, so much of all living was patience and thinking. (15.31)
We often think that perseverance goes hand in hand with strength—you know, the boxer who lasts through ten rounds and still gets up off the floor after it's all over. Brian points out that perseverance can be a passive quality, too—the ability to wait when it's necessary, and sometimes to do nothing at all.
Never. Never in all the food, all the hamburgers and malts, all the fries or meals at home, never in all the candy or pies or cakes, never in all the roasts or steaks or pizzas, never in all the submarine sandwiches, never never never had he tasted anything as fine as that first bite.
First Meat. (15.34-35)
This is starting to become a pattern. Something about the fact that he was the one who had to do all the work to get his food makes it better than any meat he's had before. What is Paulsen trying to say about the relationship between perseverance—or just hard work—and the fruits of labor?
Not that he had much to say. He was thirteen and the only passenger on the plane was a pilot named—what was it? Jim or Jake or something—who was in his mid-forties and who had been silent as he worked to prepare for takeoff. In fact, since Brian had come to the small airport in Hampton, New York, to meet the plane—driven by his mother—the pilot had spoken only five words to him. (1.2)
The pilot, it seems, isn't a particularly talkative guy, but Brian isn't really in the mood to make friends anyway. He's way too busy trying to deal with his own sadness and anger, and to do that well, it's best not to talk to strangers. Didn't your mama ever tell you that?
The pilot sat large, his hands lightly on the wheel, feet on the rudder pedals. He seemed more machine than a man, an extension of the plane. On the dashboard in front of him Brian saw dials, switches, meters, knobs, levers, cranks, lights, handles that were wiggling and flickering, all indicating nothing that he understood and the pilot seemed the same way. Part of the plane, not human. (1.16)
Brian sees the pilot as just another part of the plane, which is not exactly a compliment. It's probably partially a result of his unfamiliarity with the plane and its instruments, but it also gives us a clue about where he is emotionally. All he sees around him are objects, not people.
His mother had driven him from the city to meet the plane at Hampton where it came to pick up the drilling equipment. A drive in silence, a long drive in silence. Two and a half hours of sitting in the car, staring out the window just as he was now staring out the window of the plane. (1.41)
Ouch—talk about uncomfortable. Anyone who's ever been on a road trip knows that half the fun comes from chatting and singing. Steely silence is not exactly the stuff of highway hijinks. You have to wonder if this is how things have been at Brian's house ever since the whole divorce thing started. And if that's the case, that means Brian is probably one lonely boy at this point.
I can't take it this way, alone with no fire and in the dark, and next time it might be something worse, maybe a bear and it wouldn't be just quills in the leg, it would be worse. I can't do this, he thought, again and again. I can't. (8.11)
Brian is overwhelmed not just by all the difficulties he's facing, but also by the fact that he has to face them all alone. Fun fact: if you're gonna get poked by a porcupine, it's a lot less painful if you have a buddy with you.
I have a friend, he thought—I have a friend now. A hungry friend, but a good one. I have a friend named fire. (9.38)
Awww. While this is a triumphant moment for the guy, it's also a bit sad that Brian's loneliness is so intense that just having a fire means so much. But it also reminds us that fires aren't just for warmth and light; they're a place to gather, to sing songs and have chats. We're betting Brian could do with a bit of that right now.
So much from a little spark. A friend and a guard from a tiny spark.
He looked around and wished he had somebody to tell this thing, to show this thing he had done. But there was nobody.
Nothing but the trees and the sun and the breeze and the lake.
It's not only when bad things happen that Brian wishes for companionship—he also wants to share his triumphs, like finally succeeding in building a fire, with someone else. We can't decide which is lonelier—suffering by himself, or triumphing all alone?
Look back, he thought. Look back and see the smoke now and turn, please turn.
"Look back," he whispered, feeling all the pictures fade, seeing his father's face fade like the sound, like lost dreams, like an end to hope. Oh, turn now and come back, look back and see the smoke and turn for me… (12.24-25)
Here, when he's willing the rescue plane to turn and come back for him, all of Brian's hopes are focused on reuniting with his father. He's not just missing hot showers, cheeseburgers, and television. His father, and his family in general, stand for everything he's really missing in the woods—food, comfort, safety, and above all, human companionship.
They would not return. He would never leave now, never get out of here. He went down to his knees and felt the tears start, cutting through the smoke and ash on his face, silently falling onto the stone.
Gone, he thought finally, it was all gone. All silly and gone. No bows, no spears, or fish or berries, it was all silly anyway, all just a game. He could do a day, but not forever—he could not make it if they did not come for him someday. (12.28-29)
For Brian, the worst part isn't all the hardships—the hunger, the fear, the pain—it's the belief that they're never going to come get him out of this mess. At this point, he really does think he'll be alone forever. He could very well live the rest of his life never seeing another human again. Think about that for a second, Shmoopers. It sends a shiver down your spine, right?
He jerked his mind back to the lake. There was great beauty here—almost unbelievable beauty. The sun exploded the sky, just blew it up with the setting color, and that color came down into the water of the lake, lit the trees. Amazing beauty and he wished he could share it with somebody and say, "Look there, and over there, and see that…" (17.29)
You'd think this would be a happy moment, right? It's gorgeous out there, and beauty is good. Well, that's true up to a point. Beauty is awesome—when you have someone seeing it with you. But when you don't, it's almost as if that beauty doesn't matter at all. What's the point of a lovely lake or a stunning sky if you can't share it?
But even alone it was beautiful and he fed the fire to cut the night chill. There it is again, he thought, that late summer chill to the air, the smell of fall. He went to sleep thinking a kind of reverse question. He did not know if he would ever get out of this, could not see how it might be, but if he did somehow get home and go back to living the way he had lived, would it be just the opposite? Would he be sitting watching television and suddenly think about the sunset up in back of the ridge and wonder how the color looked in the lake? (17.30)
Boy, the grass is always greener, ain't it? Out in beautiful nature, Brian can't wait to get back to his own cozy bed. But he's a smart kid, and he knows that once he's back there, another kind of isolation will take over—that of a divorced kid. So he might as well soak up all the beauty he can while he's out there. It might give him a nice place to imagine when things are less than peachy back home.
The thinking started.
Always it started with a single word.
It was an ugly word, he thought. A tearing, ugly word that meant fights and yelling, lawyers—God, he thought, how he hated lawyers who sat with their comfortable smiles and tried to explain to him in legal terms how all that he lived in was coming apart—and the breaking and shattering of all the solid things. His home, his life—all the solid things. Divorce. A breaking word, an ugly breaking word. (1.6-9)
This is just a few lines into the book, and we're already getting a hefty dose of Brian's blues. For Brian, family means "all the solid things," everything comforting and stable and reliable, so it's definitely a major bummer that the divorce is taking all that from him. And then those comforts are taken from him two-fold, when he gets stranded alone out in the wilderness. Can't the kid catch a break?
No, not secrets so much as just the Secret. What he knew and had not told anybody, what he knew about his mother that had caused the divorce, what he knew, what he knew—the Secret. (1.12)
So now we know there's more bothering Brian than just his parents' divorce (as if that weren't enough). It's the cause of the divorce that's really stuck in his craw. At this point in the book, though, it's still a mystery just what Brian's "secret" is, and why it bothers him so much. We'll just have to keep sleuthing. Or, you know, wait until Brian tells us himself.
The big split. Brian's father did not understand as Brian did, knew only that Brian's mother wanted to break the marriage apart. The split had come and then the divorce, all so fast, and the court had left him with his mother except for the summers and what the judge called "visitation rights." So formal. Brian hated judges as he hated lawyers. Judges that leaned over the bench and asked Brian if he understood where he was to live and why. Judges who did not know what had really happened. Judges with the caring look that meant nothing as lawyers said legal phrases that meant nothing. (1.36)
In a way, the worst thing about the divorce for Brian seems to be how it lets complete strangers into their private family life. The lawyers and judges all seem like a bunch of phonies, and their sympathy is a shoddy substitute for the happy family life Brian once had.
And there were the words again. Divorce. Split. The Secret. How could he tell her what he knew? So he had remained silent, shook his head and continued to stare unseeing at the countryside, and his mother had gone back to driving only to speak to him one more time when they were close to Hampton. (1.43)
The problem with the Secret is that it doesn't just affect Brian's mom. It affects Brian, too, and it affects their relationship. His mom's secret has isolated Brian from her, and from his father, too. He's lonelier than ever, and none of it is his fault.
She nodded. "Just like a scout. My little scout." And there was the tenderness in her voice that she had when he was small, the tenderness that she had when he was small and sick, with a cold, and she put her hand on his forehead, and the burning came into his eyes again and he had turned away from her and looked out the window, forgotten the hatchet on his belt and so arrived at the plane with the hatchet still on his belt. (1.52)
Oof, this is one big bummer. See when his mom is nice to him, it's almost more painful than her cold silence. That's because her tenderness forces poor Brian to remember the happy times—to remember who his mom used to be. But now she's a deeply flawed woman with a Big Fat Secret. So not only has Brian lost the closeness he once felt to his parents, he has also lost his sense of who his parents are.
Oh, he thought, remembering a meal now—oh. It was the last Thanksgiving, last year, the last Thanksgiving they had as a family before his mother demanded the divorce and his father moved out in the following January. Brian already knew the Secret but did not know it would cause them to break up and thought it might work out, the Secret that his father still did not know but that he would try to tell him. When he saw him. (6.18)
Ah, Thanksgiving. The time of year when families can really enjoy each other's company. Or fight over the yams. In Brian's case, the holiday seems like mostly a good time, but it's all darkened by his mom's Secret. It's almost as if he blames himself for the breakup, which might sound ridiculous to us readers, who are more than willing to cut the kid a little slack. But for Brian, it's a dark cloud parked right between him and his papa.
In the mall. Every detail. His mother sitting in the station wagon with the man. And she had leaned across and kissed him, kissed the man with the short blond hair, and it was not a friendly peck, but a kiss. A kiss where she turned her head over at an angle and put her mouth against the mouth of the blond man who was not his father and kissed, mouth to mouth, and then brought her hand up to touch his cheek, his forehead, while they were kissing. And Brian saw it. (7.5)
Eureka? Finally we get let in on the Secret. And it's a doozy. Did you find it surprising, or had you guessed what the secret might be?
And he thought, rolling thoughts, with the smoke curling up over his head and the smile still half on his face he thought: I wonder what they're doing now.
I wonder what my father is doing now.
I wonder what my mother is doing now.
I wonder if she is with him. (9.46-49)
Brian can't think of his family at this point without thinking of the secret, of what led up to the breakup and the divorce. Poor kid. For him, family life literally means family strife.
All this he saw as he ran for the camp and the fire. They would take him from here and this night, this very night, he would sit with his father and eat and tell him all the things. He could see it now. Oh yes, all as he ran in the sun, his legs liquid springs. (12.21)
Seriously? Even when he's thinking about being rescued he still can't get his mind off spilling the beans to his old man? Why's he so obsessed? Does Brian think that telling his father will change anything, or does he just want to get it off his chest?
Brian tried several times to tell his father, came really close once to doing it, but in the end never said a word about the man or what he knew, the Secret. (Epilogue.9)
For a book that spends pages and pages talking about a kid alone in the wilderness, it seems surprising that its last line would be focused on family drama. Throughout the second half of the book, Brian has thought less and less of the divorce. So why zero back in on this Secret now? Why not focus on Brian being back in the land of the living and enjoying a nice slice of pepperoni?
Brian had once had an English teacher, a guy named Perpich, who was always talking about being positive, thinking positive, staying on top of things. That's how Perpich had put it—stay positive and stay on top of things. Brian thought of him now—wondered how to stay positive and stay on top of this. All Perpich would say is that I have to get motivated. He was always telling kids to get motivated. (5.39)
Do you think this is a good memory for Brian to draw on as he thinks about surviving alone in the wilderness? Does just having a positive attitude change your ability to succeed in a difficult situation?
Still, he thought. Still. As his stomach moved toward his backbone he became less and less fussy. Some natives in the world ate grasshoppers and ants and if they could do that he could get a raw egg down.
He picked one up and tried to break the shell and found it surprisingly tough. Finally, using the hatchet he sharpened a stick and poked a hole in the egg. He widened the hole with his finger and looked inside. Just an egg. It had a dark yellow yolk and not so much white as he thought there would be.
Just an egg.
Just an egg he had to eat. (10.31-35)
Here we see Brian's exploratory nature at work. His willingness to try new things is being tested, literally, by the prospect of eating raw turtle eggs. Mmm.
He scrambled down the side of the bluff and trotted to the edge of the lake, looking down into the water. Somehow it had never occurred to him to look inside the water—only at the surface. The sun was flashing back up into his eyes and he moved off to the side and took his shoes off and waded out fifteen feet. Then he turned and stood still, with the sun at his back, and studied the water again.
It was, he saw after a moment, literally packed with life. Small fish swam everywhere, some narrow and long, some round, most of them three or four inches long, some a bit larger and many smaller. There was a patch of mud off to the side, leading into deeper water, and he could see old clam shells there, so there must be clams. (11.20-21)
Just being in a new situation can cause you to see things in a whole new way. Part of exploring and looking for new solutions is being open to seeing things from a different perspective, and our boy Brian does just that.
He needed something to spring the spear forward, some way to make it move faster than the fish—some motive force. A string that snapped—or a bow. A bow and arrow. A thin, long arrow with the point in the water and the bow pulled back so that all he had to do was release the arrow…yes. That was it. (12.6)
This is free indirect discourse at work, Shmoopers. (Check out our section on "Writing Style" for more). The narrator (via Brian) walks us step by step through to a solution. We hope you're taking notes.
With his bow, with an arrow fashioned by his own hands he had done food, had found a way to live. The bow had given him this way and he exulted in it, in the bow, in the arrow, in the fish, in the hatchet, in the sky. He stood and walked from the water, still holding the fish and arrow and bow against the sky, seeing them as they fit his arms, as they were part of him. (13.30)
The reward of curiosity and the ability to explore new ways of doing things is, in this case, life itself—food and the possibility of survival. Not a bad prize.
He tried to learn from the mistakes. He couldn't bury food again, couldn't leave it in the shelter, because something like a bear could get at it right away. It had to be high, somehow, high and safe. (14.23-24)
Part of the exploratory attitude is learning from mistakes, trying new ways when the old ways don't seem to work. Even if Brian sometimes feels down and depressed, he never lets his mistakes stop him from trying a new approach to a problem.
When he had gone halfway around the lake, and had jumped up twenty or so birds, he finally gave up and sat at the base of a tree. He had to work this out, see what he was doing wrong. There were birds there, and he had eyes—he just had to bring the two things together.
Looking wrong, he thought. I am looking wrong. More, more than that I am being wrong somehow—I am doing it the wrong way. Fine—sarcasm came into his thoughts—I know that, thank you. I know I'm doing it wrong. But what is right? (15.11-12)
Brian achieves what he does only through repeated trial and error, and by reexamining his methods again and again. Lesson learned.
There had been many First Days.
First Arrow Day—when he had used thread from his tattered old piece of windbreaker and some pitch from a stump to put slivers of feather on a dry willow shaft and make an arrow that would fly correctly. Not accurately—he never got really good with it—but fly correctly so that if a rabbit or a foolbird sat in one place long enough, close enough, and he had enough arrows, he could hit it. (16.2-3)
Brian really doesn't know what he's doing most of the time—he's just making things up as he goes along, trying the solution that seems to have the best chance of success. And that means that most of what he achieves isn't perfect, just good enough to get him by. That's how it works.
At this point he sat back on the beach and studied the problem again. Sense, he had to use sense. That's all it took to solve problems—just sense. (17.20)
Okay, maybe that's not all it takes, but you sure can't solve problems without it, can you?