I don’t know about you, but once in a while I just have to read some young adult fiction. I am well-versed in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and I spent an entire Christmas Eve swallowed up by The Hunger Games while my children had to make their own cookies. But it isn’t often that I read YA fiction with a male protagonist. Clearly it’s high time I did. (See Neil Hollands’ October 24th blog about a book group for young men).
My daughters have a superb librarian at their elementary school who put me on to Gary Paulson, an author who has helped get hesitant boys to read. In 1987 Paulsen published Hatchet and ten years later, he did something that other writers must, at times, dream of: Paulsen published Brian’s Winter, thereby creating a sideways world (any Lost fans out there?) with an alternate ending for his original tale.
In Hatchet, thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson is stranded in the northern woods of Canada after surviving a plane crash. This still-popular book tells the story of how a boy learns to live in the wild and adapt to the necessity of hunting. The style can be a bit off-putting with its halting sentence structure and it took awhile for me to get used to the rhythm of it. Style aside, for a wilderness novice like me whose idea of roughing it is sleeping without a third pillow, the content was fascinating. How do you make a fire without matches? Well I’ll be darned.
Brian’s Winter is also told from Brian’s perspective and in it we are given an alternative series of events, allowing readers to hark back to their days of devouring Choose Your Own Adventure books. In order to write Brian’s Winter, Paulson had to ask himself, “what if?” What if the event that resolved the plot of Hatchet never happened?
It was the suggestion of a reader that led Dickens to rewrite the final chapter of Great Expectations and, for well or ill, that is the ending that will endure for the ages. The letters of Paulsen’s fans prompted him not to revise, but to explore an alternative possibility. So if you like the way Hatchet culminated the original finale still exists. We benefit from Paulsen’s willingness to experiment in these two accounts of a young person’s struggle to stay alive alone in the forbidding north woods.
The methodical descriptions of Brian building his shelter and creating hunting and fishing implements reminded me of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series, the books that taught generations of suburbanites to build their own meat smokers.
If your group craves more “alone in the wild” stories they might want to try Gary Paulsen’s Guts or that explorer of extremes, Jon Krakauer, with Into the Wild. I recently had the pleasure of reading Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. If you crave wilderness fare that is beautifully sad, unsparingly confessional and even triumphal, Strayed’s book might satisfy.