As the book begins, we are introduced to Brian, a troubled thirteen-year-old boy. Brian is a normal (although unhappy) kid, on a plane going to visit his father for the summer. He's dealing with his parents' recent divorce, and with "the Secret" that he's discovered and that he hasn't been able to share with his father. Okay, so we're prepared. This is going to be a nice little family drama—sad, maybe, but ultimately nothing we can't handle, right?
Not so much. Suddenly, the pilot suffers a heart attack and dies, and Brian must guide the plane in a controlled crash into the Canadian wilderness. As far as conflict goes, this is some serious, game-changing stuff. The emotional turmoil of Brian's family life goes on the back burner as Brian is forced to deal with the nail-biting situation of being alone in a plane hurtling toward nothingness. But Brian is smart and resourceful (not to mention lucky) and manages to bring the plane down without smashing himself into little pieces. Phew. So far, so good.
Brian is now in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a hatchet, and he must survive until he's rescued. Complicated, indeed. You'd think that single-handedly flying a plane into a lake in the Canadian wilderness without radio contact or even a How to Fly a Plane for Dummies book would be enough to let you off the hook for a while, but now Brian has to figure out how to keep himself alive, find food and shelter, and avoid any dangerous animals for as long as it takes the authorities to find him.
Brian does his best to adapt to life in the woods. He constructs a shelter of sorts, eats berries and turtle eggs, copes with a porcupine attack, and even learns to make fire with his hatchet. All the while, though, he is hoping and expecting to be rescued at any time. When the rescue plane finally comes, and Brian is unable to get his signal fire going in time to alert it to his presence, he is utterly devastated.
This is the point in the book where everything changes for Brian; first, he's thrown into a depression so deep that he even tries to kill himself by cutting his wrists with the hatchet. Then, realizing that that isn't a solution, he is transformed into "the new Brian" (13.11), ready for whatever comes his way. The climax is when the big change occurs, so we're pretty sure we've hit the jackpot.
Just because we've passed the emotional climax of the book with the loss of Brian's chance to be rescued, that doesn't mean that it's easy going from here on out. Brian still has to handle day-to-day life in the wilderness, which means learning to hunt and fish and contending with the animals that share the lake with him. Just when things seem to be going swimmingly, Brian is hit with the one-two punch of a mad moose and a powerful tornado. We are definitely worried for his safety, but with his new toughness he's able to survive both the raving beast and the ravaging weather, with the added bonus of the plane surfacing and the possibility of retrieving the survival bag. Yeah, Brian.
Having managed to salvage the survival bag from inside the downed plane, Brian unpacks the bag and looks forward to enjoying all the goodies he finds in it. After everything he's been through, it's almost incidental that he accidentally turns on the emergency transmitter and gets rescued at last, but we can't help but be happy and amazed to know that he'll finally be going back to civilization.
In the book's epilogue, the narrator tells us about Brian's life after his rescue. Some things don't change, of course—Brian's sadness about his parents' divorce, for instance—but in other ways everything is different. Brian's ability to observe the world around him, his attitude toward food, even his physical makeup—all are deeply affected by what he's been through. Ultimately, Brian's relationship with the natural world is permanently transformed by his experiences in the woods. Bottom line: two months in the wilderness will really do a number on you.