I enjoy reading survival stories to students, but I also like for kids to find practical applications from what they read. This is a little harder to do with survival stories, but in at least three such stories I use, there are lessons that can be applied to the students’ lives: “Hatchet,” by Gary Paulsen, “The Cay,” by Theodore Taylor, and a movie, “The Earthling,” directed by Peter Collinson.
In “The Hatchet,” Brian, a 13-year-old boy is flying in a small plane to Canada to be with his father. As he leaves, his mother gives him a present, a hatchet. The pilot has a heart attack and dies as they are flying over a wilderness area and the boy crash lands the airplane into a lake. He now must survive in the wilderness with nothing but his hatchet. It is an exciting story as Brian learns to build shelter, hunt for food and hope for rescue.
In “The Cay,” 11-year-old Phillip lives in the South Pacific with his parents during World War II. His father works in an oil refinery and German U-boats are attacking the oil tankers and freighters. His mother insists they return to the states. Since she is afraid to fly, they take a ship. The ship is sunk by a U-boat and Phillip finds himself stranded on a small island with an old black man and a cat. Phillip received a tough blow to the head as they were abandoning ship, and he soon goes blind.
In “The Earthling,” the young, pampered Shawn Daley is with his parents in the Australian outback. The father accidently drives their RV over a cliff and the boy alone survives. In the area of the wreck, an old man is making his way through the wilderness back to his childhood home. He has cancer and wants to get back to the abandoned homestead where he can die in peace. If he guides the boy back to civilization, he can’t get to his destination before he dies. If he takes the boy with him, the boy won’t survive on his own after the man passes.
In each situation, the young person finds himself in an environment in which he is unprepared to cope. The survival stories are important to our kids because soon they too will be cast into strange environments.
One time I read the following and I believe it involved an Eskimo and a white man: “You are not stupid if you don’t know what I know. You are stupid if you don’t know what you need to know to survive in your environment.”
In each of these stories, survival of the boys depends on how fast they learn. And in each case, they learn in different ways.
Brian is on his own with no adult resources to call on. He takes the one thing he has, a hatchet, and learns how to use it by experience. He also learns by closely observing his surroundings as he struggles to get food and create shelter. He is the consummate self educator.
In “The Cay,” Phillip has a different problem. His roots are in the old South, so he has to overcome prejudice and learn to trust the black man. The old man becomes his teacher and mentor and their key to survival is not education, as Timothy already knows what they must do. Their key is preparation. There is work to be done, but Phillip isn’t used to working and tries to use his blindness as an excuse not to do anything. With a sharp slap to the face by Timothy, Phillip comes to realize he now lives in a different world with new rules and he begins to play the game a new way.
In “The Earthling,” Shawn Daley also has a teacher, but he is a hard teacher. The old man knows the kid has a very limited time to learn his lessons and if he fails, there will be no second chance. There is no time for nurturing and softness. It is the Spartan approach to education; learn or die. He is harsh and demanding with the kid, but he knows what awaits the kid if he fails.
These stories give us the three things our kids need to survive in the world they will inhabit: the ability to learn from experience and observation, a mentor who helps them prepare but will give the equivalent to a slap in the face when needed, and the demanding teacher who knows that most of us will only get one try at success.
These survival stories are more than just entertainment; they show our kids what it takes to survive in the hostile world in which we all must live.