When it comes to young-adult fiction (or YA, as it’s known in the industry), the subgenre often seems synonymous with “edgy.” Over at Pub(lishing) Crawl, Mandy Hubbard lists a bunch of boundary-pushing topics broached by big YA books in recent years. They include kidnapping, war, suicide, and a whole bevy sexual taboos. Now, I don’t usually get puritanical unless it involves reading John Owen over a cup of coffee in the morning, but the prevalence of such subject matter makes me roll my eyes. I’m sure YA authors and readers sincerely believe they’re tackling Big Ideas in a Super-Adult Way. To me, though, liberally seasoning your fiction with objectionable content doesn’t make it mature. It just makes it seem as though you want it to be, which kind of belies the point. Instead of tacking toward extreme material, I wish the field would produce more titles such as Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, a 1987 survival thriller that won a Newberry. It’s as mature a YA book as any I’ve read.
Brian Robeson doesn’t want to fly in a small plane up to Canada to visit his father. Not because he doesn’t love him, but because the trip drives home a reality he doesn’t want to face: The divorce is final. The bond between his parents has broken, and Brian can’t comprehend how to live with it. In truth, though, that will soon be the most mundane of his problems. Brian doesn’t know that the pilot of the little aircraft will soon have a heart attack. He doesn’t know that the man’s death throes will jerk the plane off course. He doesn’t know that he’ll have to guide it into a controlled crash when the fuel fails. And he doesn’t know that he’ll have to learn how to survive in the Canadian wilderness with nothing but the clothes on his back and a parting gift from his mother — a steel hatchet.
My family loves to read, and when I told my wife that I had picked up Hatchet, I expected her eyes to light up. Instead, she grimaced. “I don’t like the descriptions,” she explained. Indeed, her distaste over Paulsen’s prose gets to the nub of the way in which Hatchet is a “mature” book. Don’t think that his writing is ugly. Far from it. Though Paulsen employs simple diction, his masterful use of repetition lends a stark grace. Rather, he strips away all sentimentality. The pilot’s heart attack happens on paper just the way it would in real life, with frothing and seizing and intestinal distress. Brian’s desperate escape from a lake into which the plane crashes finishes in endless vomiting up of water. The mosquitoes that swarm upon him while in his exhausted sleep afterwards are as ferocious as any horror-movie monster.
Yet through all these privations, Paulsen never reaches for prurience. Brian’s sufferings aren’t supposed to entertain. They illustrate the point that life apart from human civilization is — to paraphrase Hobbes — abbreviated and unpleasant. They detail the delights of clawing order from the chaos of nature. (One scene describing how Brian salvages the sweet juice from overripe raspberries has stuck in my memory for twenty-five years.) They mirror Brian’s ability to manage expectations of his broken family, his facility for survival growing with his acceptance of having an unfaithful parent and an absent one. In short, Hatchet is the best sort of mature book, one that shows a youth setting aside childish things and becoming a man.
(Picture: CC 2014 by Ida Myrvold)