Gary Paulsen (1939-2021)

Gary Paulsen was an author of novels for young adults whose best-known work, Hatchet (1986), is typical in that most of his stories deal with coming-of-age themes and the wilderness. The success of Hatchet led to four additional novels in the Brain’s Saga series: The River (1991), Brian’s Winter (1996), Brain’s Return (1999), and Brian’s Hunt (2003).

Paulsen was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1939. His father was an overseas military officer and frequently absent during Paulsen’s upbringing, and his mother was an alcoholic. Not surprisingly, his parents’ marriage was not a happy one. At age fourteen, Paulsen ran away from home. For a time, he traveled with a carnival, which invested him with a sense of adventure he maintained for his whole life. Paulsen was in the army from 1958 to 1962. He was a great lover of the outdoors and outdoor activities. On multiple occasions completed the Iditarod, the annual 1,180-mile Alaskan dog sled race.

Paulsen’s early difficulties with his family, as well as his love for and struggles with nature, become central themes in Hatchet and in most of his works.

Once he realized he wanted to take his career as a writer seriously, Paulsen got a job as a magazine editor to gain some experience in the publishing world. In 1966 Paulsen published The Special War, his first novel. Paulsen wrote more than 100 books, 200 magazine articles and short stories, and several plays, primarily for young adults.

Paulsen died in Tularosa, New Mexico, at the age of 82 in 2021.

Background on Hatchet

Hatchet was published in 1986, well into Paulsen’s career and after he enjoyed popular and critical success.  In addition to personal factors influencing Paulsen’s work, the literary culture of his time also shaped the content and mood of his work. Around the same time that Paulsen was emerging into the literary world, three books were published that dealt with their authors’ personal relationships with the natural world. Each book sought to combine autobiography and fiction to search for meaning and a rethought system of values out in the natural world. Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America (1967), Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), and Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It (1976) all revolved around similar themes.

Paulsen found success in adapting many of these themes related to having a personal relationship to the natural world to a young adult audience and adding elements from his own life as well. These themes were not exclusive to the literary world. In the 1970s a strong cultural force called people back to the land, and Paulsen’s books are partially a product of this outlook.