Cao Min

Speaking Time and Room No.: 2006-9-22 14:00-15:30 Room II

Speaker: Cao Min (China)

Coming of Age——A Solitary Journey in the Wilderness

—— On Reading Gary Paulsen’s Newberry Honor Books Hatchet and Dogsong


Cao Min

Capital Normal University, Beijing, China

Abstract: Coming of age has long been a universal theme in many young adult novels. The following thesis analyzes how the American writer Gary Paulsen adapts this theme in his two Newberry Honor young adult books Hatchet and Dogsong with his own elements of maturity package: being alone and immersing into nature. In these two stories, the novelist depicts how the protagonists Brian and Russel manage to complete their excursions in nature respectively after getting through a series of trials. On finishing the journey, they not only learn more about the interrelationship of man, animals and death, but also successfully transform from boyhood into manhood.

Key words: coming of age maturity initiation nature


Coming of age has long been a universal theme in many young adult novels. Usually the protagonists of those novels become more mature physically and mentally after a series of trials. Hatchet and Dogsong, the two of Gary Paulsen’s most important books that won him the honor of Newberry Awards twice, are typical examples that reveal two boys’ lonely marching into adulthood after a solitary excursion into nature. Different from the other novelists, Gary Paulsen adds his unique elements to his coming of age package: being alone and communion with nature due to his personal experience and the back to the land cultural force in 1970s.

A Profile of Gary Paulsen

Gary Paulsen was born on May 17, 1939 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His father was a professional soldier and his mother worked in a munitions factory. Both were alcoholics. Gary Paulsen did not receive regular schooling due to the mobility of his father’s job. School was a nightmare for Paulsen where he was not popular among his fellow students and sometimes he even became the laughing stock of the teachers. At an early age, the poverty of his family forced Paulsen to take up all kinds of jobs such as selling newspapers, being a migrant worker, a soldier, a truck driver, a field engineer, a magazine editor and so on. When family life was too hard to tolerate, he chose to run away from home, which enabled him to acquire a taste for adventures. Some of his great adventures include dogsled racing (he even completed two rounds of the 1,180-mile Alaskan dogsled race, the Iditarod.) and sailing alone in the Pacific on his own boat, which produced abundant materials for his writing.

Paulsen’s thirst for reading was aroused by a librarian when he was a teenager selling newspapers and happened to walk into a library to keep away from the cold of a Minnesota winter. Later Paulsen recalled, “when she (the librarian) handed me a library card, she handed me the world.” (Trelease, 1993) Reading helped him find a peaceful harbor free from his parents’ arguments at home, and reading made him finally decide to become a professional writer. As a prolific writer, Paulsen has published more than 40 books, 200 magazine articles and short stories and several plays, mainly for young adults. Most of his books feature the outdoor setting he knows so well due to his rich experiences and an adventurous life. Just as Jim Trelease put it, “Gary Paulsen writes award-winning survival stories and he does it as good as anyone in the business. But the best of his survival tales is his own, the one you find spread throughout his books… They are all Gary Paulsen’s story… I’m simply declaring there are those who invent it and those who live it——Paulsen lived it. ” (1993)

Hatchet and Dogsong

Mendit once said, “ we Americans have plenty of material things: cars, houses, running shoes, brand name convenience foods, and video games. However, we often lack spiritual things… Spiritual poverty can leave us empty and lost when we experience a crisis in our lives…” He further addressed that “a crisis in the lives of young adults is the psychosocial crisis of identity versus role confusion. It is the task of the adolescent to leave childhood behind and to define herself, to create an identity that can sustain her through the loss of innocence that we know of as the passage into adulthood.” (1996) The protagonists 13-year-old Brian Robeson in Hatchet (1987) and 14-year-old Eskimo boy Russel Susskit in Dogsong (1985) depicted by Gary Paulsen are two of the adolescents undergoing the challenging passage from boyhood to manhood, and both have completed their excursion in a place far from the civilized world.

In Hatchet, the protagonist Brian was left alone in the Canadian wilderness on his way to visit his father on the Canadian oil fields in a single-engine plane because the pilot suddenly suffered from a serious heart attack and died. After a clumsy landing of his own, he had to stay there with only the clothes he was wearing and a hatchet received from his mother as a present until the searchers came and rescued him one day. After experiencing frustration, fear, agony and longing for the coming of the rescuer day by day, Brian finally learned to rely on himself to live a self-sufficient life in the wilderness. Sheer determination and resourcefulness enabled him to stay there for 54 days until a pilot saved him by accident. This solitary stay in nature results in his transition from a vulnerable boy to a strong-willed man.

If the protagonist in Hatchet was forced to complete the maturity journey in a place far from the city because of the air crash, Russel in Dogsong chose to do so. He hated things from the outside world that were entering the Eskimo village such as the snowmachines and the cigarettes his father smoked; he hated people around who were gradually quitting the old way of living. Inspired by the old Eskimo in his village Oogruk, Russel thus decided to live the way they used to live by taking a dog team to head for the north, searching for the songs that had been lost for ages. During the odyssey, he hunted in the old way and even rescued a pregnant Eskimo girl. At the end of the harsh journey both for him and his dog team, he became a man and found the long-lost songs.

The Solitary Journey into Adulthood

Though the coming-of-age journeys are completed by two protagonists from sharply different backgrounds: one has been “stuck in the mentally lifeless urban morass” (Schmitz, 1994) for years and his basic survival instincts are only stimulated when left alone in the wilderness for a long time, and the other has been living in a traditional culture being threatened by the influx of new things, they do share many things in common.

First of all, both have completed the journey themselves. You cannot see the support from the family. In Hatchet, before Brian went to see his father, he had been obsessed with his parents’ divorce and the secret that his mother was having an affair with another man. The burden was so heavy that nothing could drive it from his mind, either the excitement of traveling on a single-engine plane for the first time or the severe pain after his first landing in the L-shaped lake. Never could he escape from it, no matter whether it was in daytime when he had been busy struggling to make a living in the wilderness, or it was at night when he had been dreaming about the past. His identity was broken because Brian had long been defining himself from his parents. Now the broken family could not provide the stability, relief or comfort the 13-year-old boy desperately needed from the family. Likewise, we cannot find the support from the family when Russel in Dogsong was bothered by something he was not quite sure about. Russel’s mother had been gone for years, while Russel’s father was someone who stood a distance from him. Russel could not understand him or identify with him. He hated his father’s coughing in the morning due to smoking cigarettes which came from ‘Outside’. He did not know why his father believed in Jesus Christ. Like Gary Paulsen who could not get warmth or support from his alcoholic parents, the two protagonists depicted by the novelist in Hatchet and Dogsong did not mature with the help from the family; they had to struggle and complete the journey alone.

But to be exact, they are not totally alone. “Like most of the young characters in Paul Zindel’s novels who often establish close relationship with old people and thus form an alliance against a crazy and corrupt world with that like-minded companion,”(Meet & Watson, 2002) Russel in Dogsong also sought help from the old Eskimo Oogruk and took his advice to go to north. In his rigorous journey to the north, he recalled this old man’s words from time to time as guidance. For Brian, on his first one or two days in the wilderness, he remembered his English teacher Perpich “who was always talking about being positive, thinking positive, staying on top of things. ” ( Paulsen, 1987, 49) And when he calculated what he has with him, he remembered the words of Perpich again: besides the clothes he was wearing, a digital watch and a hatchet, there was one other thing, he himself because Perpich once reminded the students “you are your most valuable asset. Don’t forget that. You are the best thing you have.” (Paulsen, 1987, 51) What Perpich said did help motivate Brian to begin to rely on himself instead of waiting for the arrival of searchers without doing anything. Though these two boys are taking a solitary journey by themselves, mentally they are not absolutely isolated.

Another similarity in these two coming-of-age novels is the setting of the rite of initiation Paulsen has chosen for the two protagonists——nature, a place Paulsen is so familiar with, instead of the so-called safe places like the family or the school. And in many of Paulsen’s other novels for young adults you can find the spiritual connection to the natural world as well, where the protagonists “learn about the interrelationships between man, animals, and death.”(Schmitz, 1994)

Besides the personal factor mentioned earlier which aroused Paulsen’s strong interest in nature, James Schimitz (1994)believed that the literature culture of his time also shaped the theme and content of Paulsen’s works. Between 1967 and 1976, the same period when Paulsen began his career of writing, three books were published that focused on a search for meaning and a system of values based on the author’s personal relationship with the harsh yet ultimately comic natural world, namely Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It and Other Stories. Influenced by the three books, together with the strong cultural force calling people to go back to the land leading a self-sufficient life in the 1970s, Gary Paulsen illustrated to the readers two young adults who have completed the coming-of-age journey in nature, a place far from modern civilization and from which the protagonists learn the harmony of peaceful communion with the surroundings.

In Hatchet, Gary Paulsen has created such a vivid and detailed description of how Brian gradually learned to live a self-sufficient life alone in the Canadian wilderness that National Geographic even believed in it and contacted Paulsen for the boy’s name and address so that they could make a feature based on that. The reason why the fiction can even be mistaken for the real story was because Paulsen has “lived it”. Actually when he decided to write again in 1973, he himself lived a self-sufficient life with his family far into the woods of Minnesota.

When the protagonist Brian in Hatchet first landed in the Canadian wilderness, he turned a deaf ear and a blind eye to the surroundings. Having lived in the city for a long time, he found the constant stimulation in the city had dulled his senses. He could not hear, he did not see. “Here, at first, it was silent, or he (Brian) thought it was silent.”(Paulsen, 1987, 41) But when Brian started to listen, really listen, he heard thousands of things. And when he really wanted to adjust to the life in the nature, he started to observe the surroundings, the trees, the birds he had never seen before, and the animals. He even started to appreciate the beauty of nature. Brain felt “it was so incredibly beautiful that it was almost unreal. From his height he could see not just the lake but across part of the forest, a green carpet, and it was full of life.” (Paulsen, 1987, 107) Moreover, as time went by, he even regarded himself as part of nature, which can be seen after he first successfully started a fire himself. Brian thought, “I have a friend. I have a friend now. A hungry friend, but a good one. I have a friend named fire.” (Paulsen, 1987, 92-93) He was not alone any more in the wilderness; instead he had already made friends with one thing from the nature, the fire. Now he was part of the nature. In contrast with the fear, anger, and self-pity in his early days in the wilderness, Brian began enjoying life here in the process of identifying with nature. He happily recorded each new discovery and each new thing he had learned from nature by naming them Meat Day, First Arrow Day, First Rabbit Day and so on. Later in his stay in the wilderness, he found in the crashed plane the survival pack including all the things from the civilized world, such as the lighter and the rifle, which could make life much easier. Instead of being overjoyed and making use of them right away, the wonderful pack gave him “up and down feelings”, because some of them “removed him from where he was, what he had to know”. (Paulsen, 1987, 186) He would rather reject some devices in the survival pack so as to fully taste the self-sufficient way of surviving in the nature.

We can see his change of attitude toward nature from his encounters with animals as well. When the first time he met a bear, he was so frightened that he became numb. But later after he realized the bear had the least intention of attacking him and did not mind sharing the berries, he no longer regarded it as a sort of enemy. After he came back to his shelter, “for the first time since the crash he (Brian) was not thinking of himself, of his own life. Brian was wondering if the bear was as surprised as he to find anther being in the berries.” (Paulsen, 1987, 77) This indicates that Brian almost saw no difference between him and the bear. They are all “beings.” We can see how peacefully he coexisted with the animals from his late encounter with the wolf as well. First Brian was quite scared when he saw the wolf because it was so close, so real. But the fear soon faded because Brian knew “the wolf for what it was——another part of the woods, another part of all of it.” (Paulsen, 1987, 121) And the wolf knew Brian as well, so after watching him for another time, another part of his life, the wolf turned and walked away. This proved once again Brian no longer considered himself a separate entity of nature, but another element in it.

As Brian began to appreciate nature, coexist happily with the surroundings, and learn from nature, he himself not only changed physically, but more importantly, he finally found his lost identity, and became a new Brian. From counting the days waiting for the arrival of the searchers with self-pity, to forgetting to think about the rescuers, this is a long mental change. In this process, when a plane passing by failed to locate him, he even thought about committing suicide. He did try once, but fortunately it was an unsuccessful attempt. After that, with the wound still on his arm, Brian decided to say goodbye to his past. The old weak Brian had died and what was born was a mentally strong new Brian. The rebirth of Brian signifies the emerging of Brian’s manhood. Nature has provided an ideal setting for his initiation journey into adulthood.

Unlike Brian, a city boy, who was accidentally dropped in the wilderness and came of age there, Russel in the Dogsong insisted living in the old ways. As in Hatchet, Paulsen also combined his personal experiences in his classic coming-of-age novel, one of his favorite stories. Early in the thesis it was mentioned that Paulsen twice completed a 1180-mile sled dog race into the Arctic Circle, the Iditarod. That was in the late 1970s, when he temporarily quit writing because of a lawsuit resulting from a book Winterkill he published in 1977. To make both ends meet, Paulsen began to run dogs for hunting, later for fun. Dogsong is one of the stories based on his days of running dogs. That is the reason why in Dogsong he showed such an accurate knowledge of dogs and the skill of leading a dog team. He still holds deep feelings towards dogs, calling them “human beings’ best friend.” (A speech made on IRL convention, Chicago, 2006).

Like Hatchet, Dogsong describes a coming-of-age trek in nature where the protagonist learned about the relationship of man, animals and death.

The protagonist Russel in Dogsong, unlike Brian, started the journey in the wild because he wanted to escape the modern way of life that was permeating the remote Eskimo village where he lived. He even moved in with the old man Oogruk, who gave him his sled, dogs, weapons, clothes for hunting, who told him about his own journeys and the songs in the past. According to Oogruk, Eskimos used to have songs for everything, and everybody had a song, but now nobody knows the songs any more. When Russel asked about how to find the song, Oogruk suggested that if people lived the way they used to live, the song might come back. Russel determined to get the song. He did after he successfully killed a deer using the old way of hunting, with the help of Oogruk’s sled team. “The words, moving words, dog words” came to Russel on his way back to the village with an unnamed feeling growing in his mind. For a while Russel was not sure whether it was part of his song or not, but later he made up his mind to make the song grow. And he even felt he was a “new person, not the old Russel.” (Paulsen, 1985, 50) Here Paulsen wants to tell the readers everything comes from the land. Only after a close contact with nature, can human beings get back the long lost things, in this case, the songs. Later in the story, before Oogruk passed away, he told Russel, “there’s a thing you must do now to become a man. You must not go home…. You must leave with the dogs. Run long and find yourself. When you leave me you must head north and take meat and see the country. When you do that you will become a man. Run as long as you can. That’s what we used to be.” (Paulsen, 1985, 72) Russel took the advice, and went to north with his dog team. In this long exploration into the Alaskan interior, he struggled day and night, conquering bad weather, hunger, fear and death. Finally he made it: he made the dogsong grow and at the same time he became a man. The ever-growing dogsong signifies Russel’s accumulating experience with nature.

In the harsh journey, we saw once again the role animals play in Paulsen’s works. They (in this case dogs) not only coexisted peacefully with man (like in Hatchet), but even helped human beings conquer difficulties. At the beginning of the story, Russel did not know much about dogs because they were Oogruk’s dogs. Later when he lost the way in a blizzard, it was the dogs that helped him find the way home. Thus he drew the conclusion that he could not trust himself, couldn’t see anything to help him, but he could trust the dogs. They were animals sometimes even smarter than man. Before the death of Oogruk, the old man talked about dogs too. He asked Russel to go to the north with the dogs and become what the dogs would help him become. Later in the journey, no matter how terrible the weather was, how awesome the enemy was, the dogs always accompanied Russel, helping him fight against the surroundings and the enemies. Russel realized that “without the dogs he would die. Without dogs he was nothing. ” (Paulsen, 1985, 82) When he and the dog team could not find any food for six days, the dogs continued to run, run for him. At that time, Russel “quit thinking, quit being anything, but part of the sled, part of the dogs.” (Paulsen, 1985, 123) And finally Russel found the polar bear and killed it, but a dog died in the fighting. When the Eskimo girl asked Russel with astonishment and admiration whether he himself killed the big bear with a spear, Russel did not forget to mention the dogs, “a man does not kill a bear alone. The dogs helped.” (Paulsen, 1985, 169) In Dogsong, Paulsen showed us once again the harmonious relationship between man and animals.

In Russel’s journey to the north by a dog sled, he encountered death time and again; actually the starting point of the journey was where Oogruk breathed the last breath. Before Russel began the journey, the 14-year-old boy witnessed how the old man he respected insisted on dying in the embrace of nature, sitting on ice and smiling. And then during the journey, coldness, danger and hunger threatened Russel. But his sheer determination encouraged him to go on: “he might die on the ice, but he would not die with fear. He would die working not to die.” (Paulsen, 1985, 62) Not only did he himself succeed in fighting with the demon of death, he even saved the life of a pregnant Eskimo girl named Nancy. He took the responsibility of an adult, looking after that girl and hunting meat for her. At the end of the story Russel finally reached the destination, the edge of the sea, where along the coast he might find a doctor in a village for the weak Eskimo girl.


The two protagonists in Hatchet and Dogsong have completed their solitary initiation journey after undergoing many severe trials in the wilderness. Coming to a sense of harmony and understanding between the two boys and the natural world has helped them better understand themselves. Paulsen chooses nature as the setting for his characters’ transition from boyhood to manhood due to his rich knowledge of nature, his love for nature and his longing for a life closely related to nature. In today’s modern world, so many young adults living in urban areas lead such an easy life, they tend to take everything they own for granted, they have lost their senses in the noisy city, they have almost lost their basic instinct of survival. Staying alone in a natural environment will help young adults find something that is in danger of extinction.

Some readers may argue that who would want to go back to nature, or to the old days when we are now enjoying all the conveniences brought by science and technology in the civilized world. Yes, we cannot go back to the past. Neither does Paulsen suggest we give up what we have got now to live a self-sufficient life. What he wants to tell us is that life is a journey. What counts is not the destination, but the struggling spirit the two protagonists have displayed in completing the journey.



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