Friday, June 29, 2018

Brian's Return by Gary Paulsen

 Source of book: Audiobook from the library (but we own this too.)

This book is number four (of five) in the Hatchet series. The rest are reviewed below:

I first heard Hatchet as an audiobook when I was in my late teens. I read it to the kids first, then we listened to the rest in audiobook form. The original book is a true classic. The River was pretty good, but I thought Brian’s Winter was a better (and alternate) continuation of the story. 

I will confess I was a bit disappointed by Brian’s Return. It picks up the story after Brian’s Winter with Brian trying to reintegrate into school and society after nearly a year in the wilderness. It does not go well. A bully attacks him over a girl (who he isn’t even dating), and Brian reacts as he would to a dangerous animal, seriously injuring the bully. This leads to him landing in counseling. As part of this process, he is introduced to Shakespeare, and also told that he would benefit from going back to the wilderness periodically. In Brian’s case, that means he essentially decides he is going back there - and staying this time.

This is where I have a bit of a problem with the direction taken by the series. Paulsen’s afterword makes it clear that Brian is Paulsen in many ways, and Paulsen himself did live mostly in the wilderness for years, until health issues forced him to live closer to civilization. So I get the personal aspect of the desire to return to nature. Honestly, I too love the wilderness (in reasonable doses), but I also realize that isolation like that works for very few people. We are a social species, and lack of human contact isn’t particularly healthy for individuals, and it ultimately precludes the development that makes us human, rather than just smart animals.

Paulsen also never addresses the fact that even a social form of hunting and gathering would require the human species to be one percent or less of the population we have, which is, for obvious reasons, a serious moral problem.

So, this kind of bothered me. Maybe the final book resolves the issue, but I found it unsatisfying to think that the only option was complete isolation from society and near-complete isolation from technology. This general philosophy was all too common in the Fundie circles (although they generally envisioned an early agricultural, rather than hunter-gatherer society as ideal.) Both share a disdain for urban living - and thus urban humanity - which again poses a myriad of ethical and practical questions.

There are some good parts to the book, though. It is nice to see a counselor portrayed as neither the all-knowing savior of the protagonist nor as a bumbling fool, but as an interesting human in his own right. Paulsen is still amazing in describing techniques, and in recounting moments from his own experience: in this book, encounters with a deer and a bear. I also appreciated the episode near the end when he encounters the old woodsman, who speaks his particular language. The writing is good. The problem is in the conception, which seems uncharacteristically naive for Paulsen.

We listened to this on the same trip as The Call of the Wild, which made an interesting pairing. Two authors familiar with the unforgiving laws of nature, as well as the things necessary for survival. Both stories about going feral and returning to instinct. It turns out to be a bit more convincing in the case of the dog.

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