Study Guide

Hatchet Family

By Gary Paulsen

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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?

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