“There were these things to do.”
After being ambushed by a porcupine, bulldozed by a moose, ransacked by a tornado and ceaselessly blitzkrieged by mosquitos, chances are superlative that I’d have thrown in the towel and ceded Mother Nature its victory. Not so for Brian Robeson, who taps into unprovenanced reserves of resilience in the wake of each setback. Stranded following a crash landing in a remote stretch of forest south of the Canadian border, teenaged Brian must make do with little more than naked intuition and his trusty hatchet to survive.
We’ve heard it said that necessity (and military advantage) is the mother of invention. It’s what motivates Brian to try out turtle eggs and, I suspect, it’s what led our ancestors to try their first sip of cow’s milk. (Hello, lactase persistence!) Of all the godforsaken tribulations Brian faces, none weigh so heavily as the incessant dread of hunger, an enfeebling thrumming that is never truly quelled, only held in abeyance for a time. Meals that might have been considered inedible back home become a delicacy in the New Life of Brian.
It wouldn’t be much of a story if the only character in the book was mauled by a bear or succumbed to dehydration, so it is no spoiler to report that Brian, somehow, survives to tell the tale. The details are sparse and often skipped over with haste. Brian rallies and lives to fight another day (fifty-four of them, to be exact) seems to be the punchline. While young readers may draw inspiration from Paulsen’s Bildungsroman, it’s doubtful anything here will prepare you for actual survival in the wilderness, hatchet or no.
Paulsen isn’t a lyrical writer by any stretch, either, often using repetition of common themes and emotions to carry the narrative. I’d say this is the perfect summer read for a youngster within earshot of middle school; any older and the value of Paulsen’s by-the-numbers tale drops off precipitously.
“Well, to make it short, we want you to do it again.”
When last we left Brian, he had just come out the other end of a harrowing survivathon in the woods: fifty-four days, alone with only a hatchet, of channeling his inner hunter-gatherer. It came to be known in Brian’s mind as The Time—the experience that changed him, molded him, transformed him. His conception of food, of time, of nature, the way he approaches the luxuries of modern life—all had taken on a different tint from before.
Brian, now fifteen, is just beginning to adjust to his previous life when a government research group solicits him to replicate his experience for scientific study, in particular to help illuminate the psychological component behind the human will to survive that was surely in play during Brian’s extemporized escapade. He would be accompanied by one other person, an amanuensis of sorts to chronicle Brian’s thoughts and emotions in real time. This time, however, they would have supplies, including a two-way radio, but for emergency purposes only.
Brian registers a note of incredulity, not to mention trepidity at having to relive the horrors he can’t forget, but which shortly gives way to sincere interest. His mother objects, of course, on grounds of common sense and basic parental concern, but eventually comes around as well. If anyone could help others survive in similar situations, it’s Brian. And so begins Part Deux of The Time.
Truth be told, there’s really not much that sets The River apart from Hatchet. Mishaps occur, things go from worse to horribly worse, instincts kick into sixth gear and Brian does what needs to be done. Sure, there’s Derek, Brian’s companion this time around, but for reasons that present themselves almost upon arrival, he brings little to the companionship side of the equation. Like the first, details are scarce; how Brian manages to build a sustainable raft is rushed through, as is the rest of the truncated misadventure.
Other than to cash in a crowd-pleasing sequel to a popular predecessor, there was no reason for this book to be written. This is a token case of ‘been there, done that’, and Paulsen should have pumped the brakes. But as I’m just now seeing, he didn’t stop here, either; he churned out no less than three more clones for Brian and his readers to traipse through. While his teenage audience may derive some nourishment for their survivalist bug in these endless spinoffs, Paulsen would have done well to quit while he was ahead, or for that matter, behind.
Feature image: Under Proxy Falls by theadaptive