The book begins with thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson flying as a passenger in a small bush plane from Hampton, New York. He is on his way to spend the summer with his father in the Canadian wilderness—his parents recently got divorced, something that has taken a toll on Brian. While in the plane, he thinks a lot about the divorce and about a particular secret that he calls The Secret. He believes it is this secret that caused the divorce.
As he gets upset thinking about it, Brian tries to distract himself by looking around the plane. The pilot asks whether he has ever flown in the copilot's seat before. When Brian sys no, he explains that flying is not as hard as it seems, and offers to let him take the controls for a minute. Nervous, Brian tries, and realizes that he is able to steer the plane easily. It distracts him for a while, but when the pilot takes the controls back he starts thinking about the divorce and The Secret again.
The court had determined that Brian would spend the summers with his father, and the school year with his mother in New York. His father is working in the oil fields of Canada, and Brian is flying up on the plane along with some equipment that his father would need for his work. His mother drove him from the city to catch the plane, and gave him a gift to use that summer: a hatchet.
As he is lost in his thoughts, he realizes that the pilot is in distress. The pilot has begun to have a heart attack, clutching his chest and jerking around. Brian recognizes it, but can do nothing, because within moments the pilot is slumped over with his eyes rolled back in his head. Brian knows he is either dead or in some state close to a coma—either way, Brian Robeson is alone in a plane high in the air.
For a while he does nothing, shocked, and then realizes that he has to fly the plane somehow. He plays with the controls a bit and gets the hang of it, but he has no idea where he is or where he is going. Carefully he pulls the headset from the pilot's head, even though it scares him. He tries to call out for help over the microphone and gets a response, but the signal fades out and Brian cannot provide his location or flight number. He realizes he has two options: let the plane keep going and run out of fuel, or try to bring the plane down now. He has no idea how far he has diverted from their original course.
He keeps going, holding the plane at its altitude and making periodic calls on the radio. He decides to take it down and try to find a lake to crash-land at the edge of. He is preparing himself for this when suddenly the plane's engine sputters and dies and it begins to go down. Brian starts panicking, realizing he is going to die. As the plane keeps going down he spots an L-shaped lake and tries to steer the plane towards it. The world speeds up as he gets closer and closer to the ground and he crashes, the wings of the plane breaking off as it falls through the trees. It sinks down into the lake and Brian swims out of it, desperately trying to make it up to the surface.
Hatchet wastes no time in throwing readers right into the heart of the action. The first chapter begins with Brian flying in the plane, rather than building up to the incident that will pave the way for the rest of the story. At the surface level, this draws readers in immediately and keeps them hooked from the first sentence. But it also serves a deeper purpose. By neglecting to show readers any piece of Brian's life before the plane crash—we can only rely on his stories and thoughts for this information—Paulsen shows what is really important to this story. It does not matter what Bryan did before: what matters is what is happening to him right now.
Along these lines, the first few chapters of the novel tell us much more about Brian's family life than they do about Brian himself. Readers learn about his parents and their divorce, about his feelings on the various court sessions and disputes he has had to be a part of, but not yet about what makes him tick as a person. This extreme focus on his family circumstances shows what matters to Brian when he is in the real world; however, once he is in the forest, he has to abandon this focus on extraneous matters and concentrate only instead on himself and his survival.
Gary Paulsen writes many coming-of-age novels, and this is certainly one of them. The disappearance of the authority figure—the adult pilot—is the first indicator of this theme. Without the pilot, and without either of his parents, Brian will have to grow up very quickly. He cannot be a child anymore, now that he has to make important decisions that may save his life. In the process of making these decisions, Brian will reach a level of maturity that he had not before.
Based on the first three chapters, Brian is up to the challenge. It would have been easy for him to panic and lose control after the pilot's death, but instead he calms himself down enough to think rationally and come up with the best way for him to have a shot at survival. His quick thinking—flying the plane, using the radio, steering the crashing plane towards the lake—has served him well, and this resourcefulness will continue to be important over the course of the story.
These chapters introduce us to Brian, but also to another important element of this story: the hatchet. Brian's mother giving him the hatchet to use for the summer foreshadows the events to come, when a hatchet will be the most useful tool he could possibly have. With his hatchet in hand, Brian will face the reality of having to fend for himself, but still with this one essential tool from his former life at his side. The hatchet is so important that it gave this book its title; so, keep an eye out for its use as a symbol throughout the novel.