A well-researched story of the Kids' Wilderness Epic genre written by Gary Paulsen. The first book, Hatchet, was written in 1987 and is the probably the best known of the series. Hatchet won a Newbery Honor and was made into a TV Movie in 1990 called A Cry in the Wild.
Hatchet (1986), the first novel, centers around a 13-year-old boy named Brian. His parents are divorced and live far apart, and the novel opens up with Brian riding on a small plane to go live with his father for the summer. His mother gives him a hatchet as a gift before he leaves to visit his father, but frankly he thinks it's kind of a crappy present. On the way there, the pilot has a heart attack and Brian ends up taking control of the plane until he can crash land in a lake. The rest of the book deals with Brian's struggles to survive in the Canadian wilderness.
The River (1991) has the government send a researcher into the wilderness with Brian to study the techniques he used to survive. The researcher ends up comatose after being struck by lightning(which also wrecks their radio), and Brian has to struggle to bring him down a river to get back to civilization.
Brian's Winter (1996) is an Alternate Continuity that doesn't lead to Brian getting rescued at the end of Hatchet. Because Hatchet had Brian rescued within a few months, all of them taking place during the summer, Brian's Winter covers what Brian would have to do to survive if he was stranded in the wilderness for the winter.
Brian's Return (1999) deals with Brian's difficulty in adjusting to life back in civilization. He returns to the north woods, ostensibly to visit the Smalls, the family he met at the end of Brian's Winter, but with the intention of taking the long way there...
Brian's Hunt (2003) is the final novel, which opens with Brian finding out that a bear has killed a group of people who were important to him. He goes on a hunt to bring the bear to justice.
This book includes tropes such as:
- The Aloner: There's little company in the wilderness.
- Alternate Timeline: Brian's Winter, Brian's Return and Brian's Hunt.
- Ambiguous Gender: Not being an expert, Brian can't tell the gender of animals that aren't highly sexually dimorphic. When a skunk moves next door to him, he notices that it waddles just like his Aunt Betty, so he calls it Betty and thinks of it as female.
- Awesome, but Impractical: Brian's first bow. He whittles it out of hard wood until it looks beautiful. The first time he tries to use it, it splinters explosively and nearly blinds him.
- An Axe to Grind: Brian uses his hatchet as a tool 90% of the time, but in the other 10% he throws it at porcupine. The first time he did this, he accidentally discovered how to make fire: there's bits of flint embedded in the wall of his shelter, and striking that with his steel hatchet...hmm.
- Bambification: One of the few animals that doesn't end up hurting Brian.
- Bears Are Bad News:
- Brian's encounters with bears rarely turn out well. The first time he meets a bear, he's merely lying in its way and can't get out of his sleeping bag fast enough. He gets lucky and the bear cuffs him aside leaving only a few bruises and small scratches. The second time... he kicks a bear and has to be rescued.
- Averted in Hatchet, when he sees a bear in the berry thicket and decides to stay away from the berry thicket that day.
- Bittersweet Ending: In Brian's Return, Brian is unable to re-adapt to civilization, and must return to the wild.
- Buffy Speak: Brian adopts a form of this when he's in the wilderness, making up names for unfamiliar animals. He also finds that having his thoughts racing around at a million miles an hour is counterproductive, so he takes up a kind of Buffy Thought.
- Chekhov's Gun:
- Brian's mother gives him a hatchet as a present before he leaves because she thinks Brian will be able to find a good use for it when he's up in the woods with his father. Brian initially thinks it's lame, but it ends up being his most useful and valuable possession when he gets stranded.
- The emergency radio in the first book, although Brian doesn't know how it works, and tosses it aside after accidentally turning it on. Not too long after, another plane homes in on the signal and finds him.
- Despair Event Horizon: After a search plane misses Brian despite his best efforts to draw its attention, he abandons hope of being rescued.
- Disposable Pilot: The plot of Hatchet is kicked off by the pilot of Brian's plane dying of a heart attack in-flight.
- Distress Call: Brian gets on the radio after the pilot dies and calls for help. Unfortunately, being a 13-year-old flying for the first time, he has no idea how to report his position and heading to the guy who answers, and nothing productive comes of this despite the other person trying to help. Later in the book, Brian salvages the airplane's emergency radio from the wreckage and turns it on, but discards it after he can't figure out how to use it. It's an Emergency Location Transmitter, and another plane quickly homes in on the signal and reports it.
- Foreign Queasine: Initially Brian is grossed out at the prospect of eating raw turtle eggs, but he grows to enjoy it. Similarly in River, the man Brian takes into the woods has a similar reaction when Brian suggests finding stumps and digging them open to eat the grubs inside, despite the fact he was fine with snakes.
- For Want of a Nail: "Brian's Winter" (which would then be followed by "Brian's Return" and "Brian's Hunt") builds off of one particular nail: suppose the transmitter Brian found near the end of "Hatchet" didn't work...
- Go Mad from the Isolation:
- Even though Brian is cut off from other people, it's not an issue during the summer because he's usually so busy trying to do things like gather food or improve his shelter. In the winter, though, he has a ton of wood and food stockpiled and he occasionally gets trapped inside by the snow. Naturally he starts to go a little stir-crazy, and he invents people in his head to talk to.
- Inverted in Brian's Return, where he goes mad from the lack of Isolation.
- Harmful to Minors: Brian's time in the woods eventually makes him unable to live with the rest of society.
- Hollywood Heart Attack: He's having chest pains! To be fair, the pilot having the heart attack also seems to have the lesser-known symptom of feeling like he's about to have an intense bout of diarrhea, and the chest pains only show up when the event suddenly worsens.
- In Name Only: The sequels to the movie A Cry in the Wild bear no resemblance to the original book.
- Just Plane Wrong: The single-engine bush plane Brian crashes in is described as a Cessna 406. A plane by that name does exist, but it has two engines and is not a bush plane.
- Keeping Secrets Sucks: Brian's mother cheated on his father, and Brian witnesses it but keeps quiet. He refers to the event as "The Secret" and tiptoes around the issue even in his own thoughts.
- Kids' Wilderness Epic: The many near-death experiences of the protagonist and gritty realism of the situation make this novel a solid deconstruction.
- Loners Are Freaks: Brian, when he returns to civilization, can't get used to all the humans and lack of wilderness.
- No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Brian, after returning to civilization, responds to being shoved by pummeling the offender.
- Oh, Crap!: In the first book, Brian realizes that rescue is unlikely because the pilot jerked the plane off course during his heart attack, putting the crash hundreds of miles away from the original flight plan and any subsequent search attempts.
- Orifice Invasion: Before Brian can get a fire started and be protected by its smoke, literal clouds of mosquitoes would descend upon him and cram themselves into his eyes, nose, mouth, and everywhere else they could to get at his blood.
- Reality Is Unrealistic:
- During the winter, Brian hears "gunshot" sounds, which are exploding trees.
- How realistic is it for a tornado to occur in the Canadian mountains?
- Robinsonade: Brian isn't stranded on an island, but deep in the Canadian wilderness, far from civilization. He doesn't even know which way is north. Staying put is arguably the smartest thing to do, as that's where rescue teams are most likely to search and he doesn't know if traveling for days in any particular direction might lead him to become stuck there without a water source.
- Savage Wolves: Brian sees and hears wolves from time to time, but wisely, he has a healthy respect for them and leaves them alone. He even gets to scavenge one of their kills.
- Shown Their Work: The book gives detailed descriptions of how to start fire with flint and steel, making working arrowheads and the problems that are run into when attempting to spear fish. This is because the author, Gary Paulsen, has done all these things. He has lived in the wilderness by himself. He probably had more supplies than the clothes on his back and a hatchet, but that's beside the point.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism:
- These books take a less idealized stance on wilderness survival than most other books aimed at children. Mistakes that might be found funny in other books, like eating too many unripe cherries or being sprayed by a skunk, have a much more unpleasant and lasting impact on the protagonist.
- The mosquitoes. In Hatchet, before Brian can start a fire and be protected by its smoke, they're described as a cloud of bloodthirsty insects that cram themselves into his nose, mouth, and everywhere else they can get.
- Smelly Skunk: In the first book Brian provokes a skunk that is eating his turtle eggs and he's sprayed at point blank range. He expects it to just be smelly, because he's smelled dead skunks on the road before, but he temporarily loses his vision and ends up writhing on the ground and retching half the night. In the second book a skunk takes up residence beside his shelter, and at first he's annoyed, but after he royally pisses off a bear, the skunk ends up saving his life. He names it Betty, after his aunt.
- Stranger in a Familiar Land: Brian is amazed at western society once he returns home. He can never get used to how much food there is in a supermarket.
- Super-Persistent Predator: In Brian's Hunt a bear kills the family that rescues Brian in Brian's Winter, and Brian vows to hunt the bear down and kill it. Later on, when studying the bear's tracks, he realizes that the bear is also stalking him.
- Taught by Experience: Books and television may tell you that skunks smell bad, but experience will be the one that teaches you that a good way to end up blind and vomiting for hours is to piss off a skunk.
- Much is made of Brian learning from the many mistakes he makes in the first book.
- Thank Your Prey: Brian leaves the heads of large prey on trees as a way of honoring them.
- Unreliable Narrator: Being that the book is from Brian's perspective, he doesn't know the names of all the animals he encounters, so the narration labels them in broad terms. The end of the book lays out what individual species were actually present, and ends on an unexpectedly funny note with, "and the moose was a moose."
- When All You Have Is a Hammer...: Hatchet in this case. Brian finds a lot of uses for it because it is his only tool starting off.
- Wolf Food Diet: Brian scavenges the uneaten bits of deer that some wolves left behind.
- You Can't Go Home Again: Brian learns this after failing to integrate back into civilization in Brian's Return.