Study Guide

Hatchet Contrasting Regions: The City and the Woods

By Gary Paulsen

Contrasting Regions: The City and the Woods

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.

Mistakes.

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.

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