Gary and the Grind

Hatchet | Book by Gary Paulsen | Official Publisher Page | Simon & Schuster

Few writers have impacted me as much–both personally and creatively–as Gary Paulsen. The authenticity behind his stories is what makes them so real to me. He’s gone out and LIVED a lot of the things that he writes.

A recurring theme that I’ve noticed in his fiction is the idea of “the grind.” A part of the story where the main character has to just put up, shut up, and work until he gets what he needs, or die, because that’s the only alternative. It’s also happened in three of his nonfics that I’ve read, namely Guts, Woodsong, and Winterdance.

After thinking about it over the last several months, it shouldn’t surprise me that reading his books in my youth really affected the way I view life, namely that you can achieve anything if you grind, and that even though we in the First World are comfortable, we are still subject to the forces of nature that will do us in at any turn.

In Hatchet, Brian Robeson had to learn this lesson the hard way. Stranded in the Canadian wilderness, he sobbed and cried and bawled his eyes out, feeling sorry for himself, until he realized that it flat-out didn’t work, wouldn’t do anything to change his situation. He had to change the way he thought, acted, lived, and breathed, in order to survive. Nature didn’t operate on forty hours a week of work, eight hours of sleep a night, and Saturdays or Sundays off.

Everything was food, everything was shelter, everything was survival.

And sometimes–often–survival depended on him running himself into the ground until he succeeded or died.

The River showed this beautifully when Brian had to care for a grown man who had fallen into a coma. Brian had only a few days before Derek died of thirst unless he could get him to civilization. So he built a raft and ran it a hundred miles downriver to a trading post, trying to keep himself awake for two days straight.

This mirrored an experience that Paulsen wrote about in Winterdance, when he had to cross long and dangerous stretches of Alaska on little sleep, fighting the elements, moving at the speed and rhythm of his dogsled team. In fact, the long arc of that book was really about him learning to think, act, move, and live like the dogs, not as a human steering the dogs.

Again this theme popped up in Guts, when a teenaged Paulsen was hunting for rabbits and managed to–accidentally–kill a deer. He then had to drag it home and field-dress it in the garage of his apartment complex, or else the meat–and his effort–would have gone to waste.

In Brian’s Winter, Brian similarly killed a moose cow, more by luck than by skill, and had to preserve the meat and the hide lest it get picked off by predators. He was awake for almost 24 hours straight, working to do what survival demanded.

It happened over and over again in Paulsen’s works, and I think about that a lot as a trucker. Sometimes you just have to buckle down, suck it up, and finish the job. There’s what you want, and then there’s what needs to be done.

If you have young readers in your home, boys or girls, get them started on Paulsen. It will serve them well throughout their lives to read about his experiences.