As a dad, I'm often reminded how little I really know. One of those reminders came recently while I was on a backpacking trip with my son, Toby.
Trout were rising in the lake by our campsite. Grasshoppers launched noisily in the grass behind our tent. Ripe huckleberries were everywhere. A curious garter snake made periodic appearance in a nearby pile of rocks. My dad-radar told me that our campsite was a perfect playground for my fish crazy, outdoor-loving ten-year-old.
Toby had other plans. After we pitched our tent, he pulled a book out of his backpack, staked his claim on a patch of bear grass, and then proceeded to read (ignoring snake, lake, grasshopper, and huckleberry) without pause until dinner.
"He pulled a book out of his backpack, staked his claim on a patch of bear grass, and then proceeded to read"
For the record, Toby likes to read, so it wasn’t the reading part that surprised me. And it wasn’t the duration either. That, too, was par for the course—he’s one of those read-with-a-flashlight-under-a-blanket kind of kids. What caught me off guard was that, in the contest for his ten-year-old attention, a book was the number one attraction. Who would have guessed?
I snapped a photo of Toby reading, which I include here as proof to quiet any doubters.
As you can see, the book is Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, a novel I knew by name but had never read. In my many years as a high school English teacher, lots of kids (mostly boys) told me repeatedly that it was the only teacher-assigned book that they ever liked (For some, I suspect that it was the only book that they ever finished).
I always told those kids that I would read it someday, but I never did.
Toby, though, rekindled my interest. The next day, I read it cover to cover while leaning against a log by the lake.
Freed from the tractor beam of Hatchet, Toby returned to his familiar ten-year-old self. He caught half a dozen trout (using those feckless grasshoppers as bait). He hoovered huckleberries. He spent an hour overturning rocks in search of that now not-so-curious snake.
Meanwhile, I enjoyed one of the best adventure stories that I’ve ever read.
Here’s the nutshell version: A 13-year-old boy named Brian survives a plane crash (my favorite part) and spends two months alone in the Canadian wilderness. He has an axe and his wits, but nothing else. The book is written for kids, so, yes, it’s a quick read, but in my present life quick is fine, even preferable. I finished the entire book before lunchtime.
"He has an axe and his wits, but nothing else."
Paulsen’s prose is concise and infinitely readable. Chapter by chapter, Brian methodically makes peace with his predicament. He builds a shelter, finds turtle eggs and berries, starts a fire, and makes a bow and arrow for shooting fish and birds. He’s a city boy, but over time he comes to understand and respect the vagaries of the natural world.
The book’s a winner. It deserves all the praise it has garnered over the years. I understand why Toby couldn’t stop reading it. Better than any smartphone app and infinitely more meaningful, Brian’s story of courage and self-reliance is exactly what our kids need more of.
And I’ll go one step further. Hatchet, I am convinced, should be required reading for parents. It’s a poignant reminder that kids are capable, that their emotional well is deep and complex, and that—when challenged the right way—they will surpass our expectations.
"It’s a poignant reminder that kids are capable, that their emotional well is deep and complex, and that—when challenged the right way—they will surpass our expectations."
Yes, it’s natural for us to protect our children, but too often we over-parent. For Toby, a story about a boy surviving with only a hatchet is an empowering and necessary message. For me, it afforded something different but equally empowering: A chance to walk—if only for a few hours—in the shoes of a boy.