Study Guide

Hatchet Transformation

By Gary Paulsen

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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?

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