Gary Paulsen's Hatchet is a modern classic tale of a stranded boy's struggle for survival in the wilderness. 13-year-old Brian Robeson is accustomed to big-city life and comfort when he finds himself alone in a remote Canadian forest with no tools but the titular hatchet. The story chronicles his trials and tribulations.
Hatchet was published in the 1980s and has been part of elementary and middle school curricula ever since. The story's main character is Brian Robeson, a 13-year-old from New York City, who is en route to visit his father, who moved to a remote part of Canada after divorcing Brian's mother. The tiny plane carrying Brian to his father crashes when the pilot, the only other person on board, dies of a sudden heart attack. With some skill and a great deal of good luck, Brian escapes the crash with nothing but his life, the clothes on his back, and a brand-new hatchet strapped to his belt. A gift from his mother, this hatchet is a powerful symbol of man's struggle to survive alone in the natural world.
This struggle of man vs. nature is a major theme of the book, as Brian, a smart but inexperienced city boy, has to figure out how to keep himself warm, dry, fed, and safe among the elements. Much of the book focuses on Brian's trial-and-error process of keeping himself alive, and there are plenty of bumps along the way, from eating the wrong berries to an encounter with a porcupine and an unpleasant discovery about his food source's own food source.
The story also shows how all other concerns (such as a recent parental divorce) fade to the background when your life depends on your wits. Ultimately, a natural disaster ends up giving Brian the means to call for help. He is rescued and gets to go home, but his experience in the wilderness has changed him forever. The themes of self-reliance and survival are especially poignant given that Gary Paulsen himself ran away from home at age 14.