Gary Paulsen focuses on the theme of man versus nature in most of his work. In fact, he employs this theme to such an extent that his literary reputation has been built around it. Paulsen writes not only of man's struggle against nature, but also of his capability to live harmoniously with nature, demonstrating his love and respect for nature.
Brian's communion with the animals with whom he shares his surroundings demonstrates Paulsen's view that Brian comprises another element of the natural environment rather than a separate entity. He undergoes many of the same struggles that the animals experience. Brian's constant search for food, as well as his efforts to stay safe from the elements and from other animals, facilitates his understanding of them. His encounters with the wolf and the bear provide a particularly strong sense of affinity. While Brian initially fears these animals, he soon realizes that they do not intend to harm him. He establishes a sort of trust with the animals in the woods, and soon develops the ability to listen to his instincts in determining whether or not he faces danger. For example, during a second encounter with a bear, he senses he is unwelcome. Scanning the woods, he soon realizes that the female bear wishes to protect her nearby cub.
Brian grows not only to recognize nature's dangers, but also to marvel at its beauty. As he watches the tornado rip across the woods and the lake, he finds it at once "beautiful and terrible." Brian has tremendous struggles with nature, but it seems that this novel revolves to a greater extent around Brian's struggle with his own identity, using nature as the setting. The Canadian woods provide a sufficient distance from societal forces, his parents, and his friends; in this way his experience tests his sense of self. The natural setting, which is ideal for character development, tests Brian's strength, resolve, and patience.
Brian undergoes many transformations throughout the course of the book; perhaps most significantly, Brian learns the power of positive thinking. Initially, Brian's setbacks leave him frustrated, hopeless, and full of self-pity. He longs for home, focusing on the past rather than the future. Early in his stay in the woods, Brian recalls the words of his old English teacher Mr. Perpich. He constantly encouraged his students to think positively and to motivate themselves, saying, "You are all you have." This advice helps Brian to a certain extent, but he does not fully realize the import of positive thinking until a certain incident forces him to see it.
In Chapter 8, a porcupine awakes Brian and drives hundred of quills into his leg. He cries for a long time in pain and despair, but soon emerges with a new perspective. Paulsen writes that "later he looked back on this time of crying in the corner of the dark cave and thought of it as when he learned the most important rule of survival, which was that feeling sorry for yourself didn't work. It wasn't just that it was wrong to do, or that it was considered incorrect. It was more than that—it didn't work."
This realization provides Brian's first step toward mental resolve. Although he has several lapses in resolve, most notably when he attempts suicide, he generally grows toward a more confident and determined state of mind. The moose attack and the tornado injure Brian and destroy his shelter, but in the aftermath of these events, he demonstrates a remarkably positive approach to the situation, immediately taking action to rebuild and heal.
Patience, observation, appreciation for the natural world, and newfound optimism all contribute to Brian's emerging manhood, a major theme in the novel. At the beginning of the novel Brian defines himself as part of a family, and for this reason the divorce presents him with a particular kind of pain. He sees instability in his future, no longer able to identity himself through his family. At thirteen years old, Brian does not feel quite ready to define himself as an adult or to seek his own sense of identity as a separate person.
The plane crash and his subsequent stay in the woods force Brian to come to terms with this broken sense of identity. Brian faces a choice: grow up and be tough, or die. Brian accepts the challenge and emerges from it having experienced the responsibilities and pressures of adulthood. This theme touches upon a universal tradition that seems to transcend cultures and nations. Particularly for boys, a rite of initiation often involves a solitary excursion into nature.
Because Brian has his roots in the city, and has spent his entire life in the urban environment, his adventure in the wilderness has even greater import than it would for someone with a rural background. His character lends itself to a myriad of comparisons between rural and urban life. While Brian is accustomed to the conveniences of the commercial world, in the wilderness he must become completely self-sufficient. While he had formerly taken for granted countless elements of the civilized world, in the course of the book he not only learns to develop self-sufficiency, but also to embrace it. He finds that accomplishing duties on his own makes the results of his work all the more gratifying.
Brian also notices another major difference between the wilderness and the city—that the events of his life in the wilderness do not revolve around societal measures of time. Because he need only concern himself with his physical well being, the routines of nature dictate his behavior. He must take advantage of the daylight hours, and the weather presents some difficulties, but he can largely shape his day around his needs for sleep and food, as well as his activities to improve his shelter or hunt. This freedom from strict time measures liberates to Brian, who begins to define and measure time by the major events in his wilderness life.
As a result of Brian's increased respect for nature, he becomes incredibly resourceful and reluctant to cause waste. He also becomes increasingly patient and observant, two qualities essential to meeting the challenges of wilderness life.
Brian constantly fights emotional weakness, recognizing the need to think clearly and rationally. As he spends more time in the woods, his problem solving and brainstorming capabilities improve. He begins to overcome his natural tendency to become frustrated, understanding that he must approach each problem anew. While he also develops physical strength, his determination and intelligence serve the greater role in his survival. Brian makes many mistakes throughout the course of the book, but when he thinks rationally about how to improve upon those mistakes, he makes significant progress. For example, he finally succeeds in catching fish from the lake when he remembers from his science class that the refraction of light on water distorts the appearance of objects underwater.
Gary Paulsen employs the literary technique of shifting back and forth through time. While Brian experiences his present situation and its urgency, he constantly refers to the past, which shapes his thoughts and actions. Paulsen uses flashbacks to inform the reader of past events, and specifically, of the circumstance surrounding Brian's parents' divorce. For example, the reader learns of Brian's knowledge about "The Secret" when he thinks back on it and recalls his feelings that day. In addition, Paulsen incorporates the past into the present by commenting that the hate Brian felt that day returns to him with intensity when he remembers the incident. In painting a vivid picture of Brian's emotional landscape, Paulsen effectively interweaves past and present.
Throughout the course of the book Brian has several significant dreams. In some cases, dreams not only inform the reader of Brian's subconscious, but also enter reality and have relevance to it. When Terry and Brian's father attempt to show him how to start a fire in his dream, he does not initially pick up on the connection. Later, however, it dawns on him that they were trying to tell him to strike the hatchet on a stone to ignite sparks. This overlapping of dream and reality also brings elements of Brian's former life into the forefront, particularly when he dreams of his mother's affair.
When Brian leaves for Canada, his mother gives him a hatchet to use during his summer in the Canadian woods with his father. Attached to his belt during the plane crash, it serves as the sole tool in his possession. He depends upon it to make all his hunting tools and to start a fire. Most importantly, he uses it to gain access to the survival pack, which makes his rescue possible. The hatchet symbolizes the only constant element in Brian's entire adventure. Brian's multiple uses of the hatchet attest to his resourcefulness.
The plane has a complex and contradictory symbolic role, in that it represents an ending and a beginning, and contains both death and life. The plane crash at the beginning of the book seems as if it should be an ending to a series of events, when it actually serves as a prelude to Brian's real adventure. The pilot meets his death in the plane when he has a heart attack, and his body remains underwater in the plane, strapped into the seat. However, Brian's eventual rescue only becomes possible because he finds the survival pack in the plane. The transmitter inside the survival pack enables Brian to send a signal to the rescuers.
Brian finds a rifle in the plane's survival pack; surprised by its presence, Brian rejects the gun and puts it aside. To Brian it represents the unwelcome intrusion of civilization and technology on his wilderness world. While the rifle provides efficiency and convenience, it does not represent the self- sufficiency Brian has come to appreciate. The rifle separates Brian from his way of life and from the other creatures of the wilderness.