Brian Robeson, a thirteen-year-old boy from New York City, is the only passenger on a small plane headed toward the oil fields of Canada. We've all been there, right? Oh, not right. Brian is on his way to spend the summer with his father, and he's feeling totally bummed about his parents' recent divorce. Brian doesn't have much time to dwell on his unhappy family situation, though, because the pilot—the only other person on the plane—suddenly suffers a heart attack and dies. Holy game-changer, Batman.
Through an amazing combination of good luck, clear thinking, and readerly suspension of disbelief, Brian manages to crash-land the plane into a lake and escape with nothing more than some bruises. Still strapped onto his belt is the hatchet his mother had given him before he boarded the plane. Brian realizes he needs to find food and shelter so he can last until he's rescued. It's just like Survivor… but real and totally terrifying.
With his trusty hatchet at his side, Brian finds some berries, constructs a shelter of sorts out of some tree branches and a cave (this kid was definitely a Boy Scout), and meets a bear in the woods. Woven throughout the narrative are Brian's thoughts and memories of his family, and the "secret" which led to his parents' divorce—his mother had been involved with another man before the breakup. As the days pass, Brian is attacked by a porcupine, learns how to make fire, makes a fishing spear from a tree branch, and eats some really gross stuff. Try not to read this book while you're having lunch—just a friendly tip.
All the while, Brian is counting on rescuers showing up at any time. When a rescue plane does fly overhead, though, Brian misses it, seeing it just in time to watch it fade off into the distance. Ouch. Brian's reaction, understandably, is not pretty. We're talking screaming, tears, absolute despair. He is not (sorry, we just have to say it) a happy camper.
As time passes, though, Brian recovers his can-do attitude, and becomes even tougher than he was before. He constructs a bow and arrow, learns to fish, hunts birds and rabbits, and reinforces his shelter against the elements. He's attacked by a skunk and, later, a moose. And as if eating raw turtle eggs and fighting off wild animals weren't enough, Brian then has to deal with a tornado. Geez. On the plus side, he's going to be able to write one heck of a "What I Did for Summer Vacation" paper, that's for sure.
The tornado, it turns out, churns things up so much that the crashed plane, which had been at the bottom of the lake, ends up sticking out of the water. Brian (again with the help of his handy hatchet) is able to get into the plane and recover the dead pilot's emergency survival pack. In the pack, Brian finds a sleeping bag, a compass, cooking tools, lighters, matches, bandages, a rifle—it's basically like a great big caveman Christmas package.
Also in the bag is an emergency transmitter, but Brian puts it aside after flipping the switch on it a few times and hearing nothing. He assumes that it was broken when the plane crashed. But no, dear reader—it's not broken. Suddenly a plane appears, circling and landing on the lake. The pilot steps out and tells Brian that he picked up the signal from the emergency transmitter.
Brian is rescued (!).
In the book's epilogue, we learn that Brian soon returns to life in the city with his mother. He's been changed, physically and emotionally, by his experiences in the woods. Um, duh. He spends time learning about some of the plants and animals that he'd known there, and he often has dreams about his time on the lake. His parents never reconcile, and Brian is never able to tell his father about his mother's involvement with another man.
- The story begins with Brian Robeson staring out the window of a small plane. He's on his way to the first-ever dinosaur amusement park. Oh wait, wrong book.
- Brian is thirteen years old, and he's the only one on the plane, other than the pilot. Given that he can't remember the pilot's name, we're guessing they haven't bonded much. Our soon-to-be protagonist came with his mother to a small airport in Hampton, New York, to catch the plane. He's sitting in the copilot's seat, and—sure enough—the pilot hasn't spoken to him since the plane took off. This ain't no one-on-one date on The Bachelor.
- Thinking back over the events that have led to his being where he is, Brian thinks about the word "divorce." It is, he thinks, "a tearing, ugly word that meant fights and yelling, lawyers" (1.9).
- Brian also thinks about the word "secrets," or rather, about the Secret (with a capital S) that he knows about his mother, a secret that he hasn't shared with anyone. We aren't told what the secret is. Come on, Brian.
- Thinking about all this, Brian feels his eyes start to burn and tear up, but he doesn't cry. He glances at the pilot to make sure the tears weren't noticed, and the pilot smiles, asking Brian if he's ever flown in the copilot's seat before. Brian says no, he hasn't.
- The pilot shows Brian the plane's rudder pedals and the steering controls, telling him that a "plane like this almost flies itself" (1.19). Yeah, right.
- He lets Brian take over for a little while, helping him steer the plane and bring the nose up and down a bit. Then he takes the controls back, rubbing his left shoulder and telling Brian that he's got aches and pains, and he must be getting old.
- Brian returns to gazing out the window, and to his thoughts and memories about his parents' divorce. He's kind of freaking out about the whole thing. Brian's father, we find out, didn't understand what had caused the divorce—it was Brian's mother who wanted the split.
- Brian is supposed to spend school years with his mother and summers with his father. Brian is not psyched about the arrangement, and he's definitely not happy with all the judges and lawyers who have made all these decisions about his life.
- Suddenly the plane lurches to the right a bit, and Brian notices that the pilot is rubbing his shoulder again. He smells gas in the plane (not the fuel kind, the stinky human kind), and thinks the pilot must be having stomach problems. Wow, trapped in a plane with Mr. Gasman—great way to start your summer vacation.
- This will be Brian's first summer spent with his father since the divorce (which was only finalized a month before). His father is a mechanical engineer working in the oil fields of Canada. The plane Brian is on is also carrying drilling equipment and, Brian remembers, a "survival pack" (1.39) that holds supplies in case the plane has to make an emergency landing. Wow, think that might be important later?
- The smell in the plane is stronger now (eww), and Brian notices that the pilot is still rubbing his arm.
- Back to his memories—did we mention he's a little overwhelmed?—Brian thinks about the car ride he took with his mother to catch the plane. They spent almost the whole two and a half hour trip in silence. Brian's mother asked if they could talk about things at one point, but Brian, thinking of the divorce, had shaken his head no, and just looked out the window. Not exactly warm and cuddly family times here.
- When they were close to the airport, though, Brian's mother had given him a gift. It was a hatchet for him to use while he's with his father in the Canada woods. At his mother's urging, Brian attached it to his belt.
- The smell in the plane is even stronger now, and Brian glances at the pilot, only to see him grimacing in pain and rubbing his shoulder again. Suddenly he spasms, gripping his stomach. He tries to use the plane's communication system to call for help, but before he's able to, he's wracked by another horrible spasm. This is definitely not looking good.
- Suddenly Brian realizes what's happening—the pilot is having a heart attack. Even as Brian realizes this, the pilot slams back into his seat one more time, jerking the controls so the plane twists to the side. Houston, we have a problem.
- Brian, shocked by the sudden turn of events, doesn't know what to do.
- In the plane there is "a strange feeling of silence and being alone" (1.70), and Brian is filled with terror.
- At first, Brian can't cope with what has happened. "[H]e could do nothing," the narrator tells us. "It was as if his hands and arms were lead" (2.1).
- Then he tries to see if he can help the pilot—he's heard of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and CPR, but doesn't know how they're done. He touches the pilot on the chest, but the pilot doesn't seem to be breathing at all.
- The plane has been flying straight ahead all this time, but now it hits some turbulence and angles downward a little bit. Brian knows that if he doesn't do something, this will cause him to fly straight into the trees below. Not the outcome he's hoping for.
- He realizes that he has to somehow fly the plane; the pilot can't help him anymore.
- Brian puts his hands on the plane's control wheel and his feet on the rudder pedals. Slowly, piecing together bits of information from things he's read and things the pilot showed him just minutes before, Brian manages to control the plane and pull the nose up a little so it's flying steadily forward. (Yeah, we know—just go with it, okay?) All he can see beneath the plane is an endless forest dotted with tiny lakes.
- Looking at the dashboard of the plane, Brian tries to figure out what all the dials and gauges mean.
- He notices the radio that the pilot had been trying to use when he collapsed. Brian realizes that he can use the radio to try to call for help. Either that or he can hear some awesome tunes as he plummets to his death.
- The pilot is still wearing the radio headset, though. Despite his horror at the prospect of touching the dead pilot, Brian forces himself to take the headset and place it on his own head.
- Brian presses in the microphone switch (which he had seen the pilot do) and calls for help. There is no response, and he starts to cry, screaming into the microphone over and over.
- Suddenly, he remembers that, in order to hear any response, he needs to release the microphone switch. He does so, and he hears a voice responding to his call. The voice is faint and the message is breaking up, but whoever it is asks Brian to state his difficulty and his location.
- Brian responds, telling the speaker what happened, but saying he doesn't know where he is. The voice comes back, fainter than before, asking again for the location. Finally it fades out altogether and Brian can't hear anything more. (Serious Major Tom moment here.)
- Frustrated and despairing, Brian keeps trying to raise someone on the radio, but with no success. Time passes, and the plane just keeps flying forward. That's kind of how it works, huh?
- Brian realizes that, sooner or later, the plane will run out of fuel. Maybe he should try to land the plane now, he thinks, before that happens. But he can't bring himself to do it. Instead, he just keeps waiting, trying the radio every ten minutes and trying to make a plan of action for when the fuel is gone.
- He realizes that he'll have to try to bring the plane down on a lake, because if it goes down in the trees it'll be destroyed and he'll most definitely die. When the plane starts going down, he decides, he'll try to find a lake, push the nose of the plane down to point the plane toward it, and then pull up the nose at the last minute to try to slow the plane down before impact. Brian goes over this plan again and again in his mind, trying to prepare himself.
- Suddenly, the plane's engine dies. Brian pushes the nose of the plane down—and throws up.
- As the plane plunges downward, Brian is in a panic, thinking over and over that he's going to die. He doesn't see any lakes ahead of him—only trees.
- Finally, up ahead and a little to the right, he spots one, and he pushes the rudder pedal slightly to aim for it. Turning slows the plane down a little, and for a moment everything seems to stand still as Brian looks down at the trees and the lake below him.
- Then suddenly the plane is speeding through an open lane, a narrow channel of fallen trees that leads towards the lake. Brian pulls up on the wheel. The wings of the plane catch on the trees and Brian is slammed against the front of the plane. Gulp.
- The plane crashes through the trees and into the lake, breaking the windshield and driving down into the cold water, Brian screaming the whole time. Yeah, we know—there's a lot of screaming in this book.
- Underwater now, Brian claws his way out the broken windshield and swims up and up toward the surface. He doesn't think he's going to make it, but he just barely does.
- He swims and drags himself to the edge of the lake, pulling himself up onto the bank with the help of the weeds growing in the shallows. Hey, if we bought it in Lost, we have to suspend our disbelief here, too, right?
- Then he passes out.
- The chapter begins by taking us back to thoughts of Brian's memory of the secret about his mother. (Yeah, this one isn't going anywhere.)
- Brian was riding bikes with his friend Terry and rode past a shopping mall. Suddenly Brian caught sight of his mother sitting in a strange car with a strange man. Uh-oh. Details of the memory are burned into Brian's consciousness: "The hot-hate slices of the memory," the narrator tells us, "were exact" (4.8). So... tell us how you really feel, Brian.
- Back to the present: Brian wakes up screaming (see?—more screaming), thinking that the plane crash is still happening. When he runs out of breath for screaming, he breaks down into sobs.
- He's sore all over. He closes his eyes. When he opens them again, it's much later. He's lying with his legs in the water. He's still in a great deal of pain, but he's able to drag himself out of the water and crawl into some brush, where he lies on his side and goes back to sleep.
- When he wakes, the sun is just starting to come up. Although his body still hurts, and his forehead is badly swollen, he's pretty sure that nothing is broken. At least he's alive, he thinks, remembering the pilot in the plane at the bottom of the lake.
- Brian is wet and clammy and everything seems unreal. Kind of like that feeling you get right before your teacher hands out the math final. Except a zillion times worse.
- Brian sits for an hour or two, watching the sun come up. As it gets warmer, hordes of mosquitoes and little black flies appear, biting him mercilessly, going into his nose and mouth. Yuck.
- He tries to fight them off, but there are too many, and he's finally forced to just cover his head as best he can with his torn windbreaker and keep brushing them off.
- Finally, when the sun comes up fully, the mosquitoes go away. Brian thinks that they're kind of like vampires, because they don't like the daytime. You'd think he was living in the 21st century.
- Brian stands up, which makes him feel weak. The mosquito bites have made his hands puffy, and his eyes are almost swollen shut. This would definitely be a bad time for his school portrait.
- He looks around, taking in the calm, still lake, and the abundance of green trees.
- There's a rocky ledge about twenty feet high to one side of the lake; Brian thinks that if the plane had come down on that side of the lake, it would have hit the rocks and he would be dead. Well, then.
- At first, that makes Brian feel lucky—until he thinks about his parents' divorce.
- Brian keeps looking around. He sees a beaver lodge, which he recognizes from having seen one on a public television show. He sees hundreds of fish jumping and slapping the water in the lake. He's still in a bit of a daze, and he thinks about how different this place is from what he's used to at home in the city.
- This is one reflective kid.
- He listens and hears lots of tiny distinct sounds—the splashing of the fish, birds singing, insects humming. It's all very new to him, and he's very tired.
- He sits down again, with his back against a tree, and falls asleep. Again with the napping, Brian? Guess plane crashes will do that to you.
- Brian awakens suddenly, feeling unbelievable thirsty. It's mid-afternoon now, and his face is badly sunburned. He wonders whether the lake water is safe to drink, and he thinks briefly of the dead pilot. So far, not the best day.
- He's so thirsty, though. He finds a log sticking out into the water and walks out onto it, so that he's away from the muddy, murky water near the shore. He drinks until he can't drink anymore, then stumbles back to shore and promptly throws up. (There's a lot of vomiting in this book, too—did we mention that?)
- Sitting back against the tree, he starts to think about his situation. At first his thoughts are all jumbled up, but then he breaks things down and thinks about them a little at a time. (We recommend this for analyzing poetry, too. Just saying.)
- He is thirteen years old. He's in the north woods of Canada. He does not know where he is.
- People will be looking for him, though; they will probably mount an extensive search. They may even find him sometime today, he thinks. He might be home tonight, eating a cheeseburger with fries and a chocolate shake.
- If only.
- Suddenly Brian realizes that he is ravenously hungry and that he has nothing to eat. He has no matches, no food, nothing.
- He remembers an English teacher he once had, who was always telling kids to stay positive and to get motivated. (We all know that guy.)
- So he empties his pockets and takes stock of everything he has. Not much—some coins, a nail clipper, a twenty-dollar bill, and some scraps of paper. He also has the hatchet his mother gave him, still hanging from his belt.
- He thinks about other things he has, too—tennis shoes, socks, jeans, underwear, leather belt, T-shirt, torn windbreaker, broken watch. And himself, of course.
- Thinking that he'd trade everything he has for a hamburger, he says, "I'm hungry" out loud, then shouts it over and over. When he stops shouting, everything is silent for a few seconds.
- Putting his things back into his pockets, Brian tells himself that the hunger won't be such a big deal, since he'll probably be rescued soon. He has plenty of water, which after all is more important than food.
- At the back of his mind, though, there's something nagging at him, something he's forgotten. He realizes, suddenly, what it is. No, not that he forgot to set his DVR—it's that when the pilot had his heart attack and his foot jerked the rudder pedal, the plane was thrown off course. Brian had let the plane fly for hour after hour after that, sending it way off its original flight plan, and far away from where the searchers would be looking for him.
- Brian realizes that the searchers may not ever find him. He starts to panic, but then he tells himself that they'll keep searching and it will be all right. They may not find him for a few days, but they'll find him.
- Meanwhile, he needs to make the best of things. He needs to find some shelter and some food. He needs to get motivated.
- The chapter starts as Brian remembers a time, two years before, when he and his friend Terry pretended to be lost in the woods and made plans for how to survive. Of course, they had imagined they would have a gun and fishing gear and matches and lots of things that Brian doesn't have now.
- Brian decides to try to make a lean-to (a kind of makeshift shelter constructed from sticks and twigs). Looking for a place to build it, he finds a small hollow on one side of the rocky ledge. Not quite a cave, but it will be stronger and dryer than a lean-to. He sits down under the ledge for a while to rest, then goes to the lake to drink some more water. He's weak from hunger, and he realizes that he's got to find something to eat. Unfortunately, he's pretty sure Pizza Hut won't deliver to "the little cave next to the big lake in the woods."
- Thinking about food, Brian remembers the previous Thanksgiving, before his mother asked for the divorce and his father moved out. He thinks about the turkey, the smell and the flavor of it. Bad idea, Brian. Bad idea.
- Forcing himself to focus, Brian gets back to trying to figure out how he can find food now. He remembers a TV show he saw once about pilots in the Arizona desert, and how they managed to get by by eating lizards and some beans they found growing on a bush. There aren't any beans or lizards here, Brian thinks, but there might be some berries.
- Brian looks at the sun, wondering what time it is. He thinks about his mother and wonders what she's doing. Since it's Thursday she's probably going to see him, Brian thinks—the man who was in the car with her.
- Focusing back on his current situation, Brian decides to go look for berry bushes. He needs to keep the lake and his ledge in sight, though, so that he doesn't get lost. Smart kid.
- He walks slowly along the side of the lake. He sees several different kinds of birds and eventually comes upon some bushes full of bright red berries, which the birds are eating. Here's hoping the birds' moms taught them that sharing is caring.
- Although the berries are tart and have large pits, Brian is so hungry that he eats and eats and eats, not stopping until his belly is full. Not wanting the birds to take all the berries after he's gone, he makes a pouch from his torn windbreaker and fills it with as many berries as it will hold.
- Back at his hollow on the ridge by the lake, Brian wishes he had matches to start a fire. He tries to start one by rubbing two sticks together, but it doesn't work, and he gives up in frustration.
- Next, Brian drags sticks up from the lake and weaves them together as best he can to cover the opening of his hollow under the ledge. He leaves a "doorway" about three feet wide on one side so he can get in and out of the hollow.
- He might be frustrated, but we're impressed.
- As the sun goes down, the mosquitoes return and attack again. Brian dumps the berries and puts on his windbreaker to protect himself a little. He crawls in under the ledge and eventually falls asleep.
- Brian wakes up suddenly, yelling for his mother, wracked by horrible, excruciating stomach pain. Don't judge him, guys—everyone wants their mom when they're feeling sick, right?
- He crawls out the doorway of his shelter and vomits onto the sand. He crawls farther down toward the water and vomits some more. For the next hour or so, he vomits and has terrible diarrhea. (Don't say we didn't warn you.)
- Finally, he's able to crawl back into his shelter. He can't sleep, though—he's thinking about his mother sitting in the car with the strange man. He saw his mother kissing the man, and this is the secret that he hasn't been able to tell his father about, the secret that led to the divorce.
- Finally, exhausted, Brian falls asleep.
- When he wakes up again, Brian's a little disoriented. He hears the whine of the mosquitoes and smells his own vomit, reminding him of where he is. Not exactly an ideal wake-up call.
- He thinks his stomach trouble must have been the result of eating too many of the berries. He crawls out of the shelter and uses sticks to try to clean the mess in the sand. Then he goes down to the lake to wash his hands and drink some water.
- His own reflection in the lake frightens him—he's covered with dirt, his face is swollen and lumpy, and his hair is matted. He feels sorry for himself, and cries miserably for a few minutes. At least he doesn't vomit or scream, right?
- Finally, he goes back to the shelter and eats a few of the berries (he calls them "gut cherries" now, because of how they affected his stomach). He's careful not to eat too many, and to choose the ones that seem to be the most ripe, taking time to wash them in the lake first. Afterward, he sorts the remaining berries into piles, separating the ripe ones from the others, and covering both piles with grass to keep the bugs off.
- Tonight, he thinks, he can eat some more of the gut cherries, but meanwhile, he needs to try to find better berries. He'll go looking, and be careful to come home to his shelter before nightfall.
- Walking alongside the lakeshore, he passes the gut cherry bushes and finds a clearing a little bit farther along. The clearing is full of raspberry bushes, and Brian eats his fill, then starts picking more to load into his windbreaker-bag.
- Suddenly Brian hears a slight noise behind him, and he turns to find a huge black bear standing less than twenty feet away from him. Gulp.
- It stands on its hind legs, studying him. Then it lowers itself onto all four legs, eats some berries, and goes on its way.
- Without even knowing what he's doing, Brian finds himself running back toward his shelter. After running about fifty yards, he stops. The bear wasn't interested in eating him, he tells himself, and he needs more of the raspberries.
- Slowly he convinces himself to go back and pick more, although he's more cautious on the way back. Good call.
- At about noon it starts to rain, and Brian takes his windbreaker full of raspberries and goes back to his shelter. He's more or less comfortable, even a bit cozy as the rain pours down outside.
- That evening he thinks again about the bear, and he takes his hatchet out of his belt and puts it by his head before he goes to sleep.
- Brian wakes up to a sound like a growl in the night. This can't be good.
- It's pitch black and he can't see anything, but there is an odd smell in the shelter. He hears a slithering, brushing sound near his feet, and he kicks out, throwing the hatchet toward the sound at the same time. The hatchet hits the wall of his cave, creating a little shower of sparks in the darkness.
- Brian's leg explodes in pain, "as if a hundred needles had been driven into it" (8.3). Man, it just keeps getting better.
- The slithering sound continues, and Brian can see a vague shape going toward the door of the shelter and moving outside. He feels his leg and finds that there are needles in it—the intruder was a porcupine, and its quills are stuck in his calf.
- One by one, although it hurts a lot, Brian pulls all eight quills out of his leg. When he's finally finished, he sits in the dark, crying and thinking that he just can't take any more. He puts his head down and cries until he's all cried out.
- Later, the narrator tells us, Brian would look back on this time as the point where he learned "the most important rule of survival, which was that feeling sorry for yourself didn't work" (8.12). Wow, and here Shmoop thought it was "always bring an extra pair of underwear." You learn something new every day.
- Finally, Brian falls asleep again, and he dreams about his father. In the dream, his father is trying to tell him something—he's making gestures with his hand as if he's scratching something, trying to say something to Brian, but unable to make a sound. Then Brian dreams that his friend Terry is starting a fire in a barbecue pit at the park. He points to the fire as if he's trying to get Brian to notice something about it.
- What do they mean?
- Brian wakes up and eats some raspberries. His leg is very stiff from the porcupine attack. He notices his hatchet lying by the rock wall, and as the sun catches and glints against the hatchet, Brian remembers the sparks the hatchet made when it hit the rock the night before. He hits the hatchet against the wall, and more sparks come flying off.
- He can make a fire, he realizes, with the hatchet.
- Brian tries to make a fire from the sparks with dried grass and twigs, but the sparks just burn out without catching. Next, he remembers the twenty-dollar bill he has in his pocket and he tries to light that, but again the sparks won't catch.
- He then has the idea to use some bark from a nearby birch tree. He pulls off some of the peeling bark, makes a pile of it inside his shelter, and strikes some sparks into it. Again, no fire, but this time a piece of the bark seems to glow a little before it goes out.
- Realizing the birch bark needs to be thinner in order to hold the fire, Brian spends the next two hours cutting bits of bark into thin strands, making a big pile of birchbark fluff. This time, when he strikes the sparks into the pile, a few of them smolder a bit before going out.
- Remembering that fire needs oxygen, he tries again, this time blowing on the smoldering sparks when they fall onto the bark. He blows too hard, though, and the sparks go out.
- The next time, he blows more gently, and the glowing sparks grow stronger, suddenly bursting into flame.
- Wow. Now that's what we call resourceful.
- Brian is ecstatic. He runs from the shelter to gather some dry wood to feed the fire. Building up the fire with the wood, he thinks to himself that now he has a friend—a friend named fire. Nice, but let's just hope he doesn't try to give it a hug.
- The fire will keep him company, and also discourage animals like the porcupine from coming into his shelter. Good combo.
- Suddenly, Brian wonders what his father and mother are doing at this moment, and he wonders if his mother is with the man from the car.
- At first, Brian is reluctant to leave the fire, worried that it will go out. He sits by it for a good part of the day, feeding it more wood and just basking in the joy of having it.
- Finally, in the afternoon, he goes out of the shelter to search for enough wood to keep the fire burning through the night.
- As it turns out, when he's near the fire, the mosquitoes leave him alone. That's good to know. He also realizes that he can use the smoke from the fire to make a signal if he ever sees a plane pass overhead. That's really good to know.
- As it gets dark, Brian settles in for the night and eats the rest of his raspberries. His leg still aches from the porcupine quills, but it's gotten a little less stiff. Tomorrow he plans to look for more food and to build a signal fire.
- Brian wakes up during the night and finds that the fire has almost gone out. He stirs it up with a stick and adds some more wood to get it going again. He hears a sound outside the shelter, but the fire makes him feel relatively safe, so he goes back to sleep.
- When he wakes up in the morning, he finds tracks in the sand in front of the shelter, leading up from the lake and then back down. There's a pile of sand near the shelter where the tracks stop. Trying to figure out what kind of animal it was, and what it had been doing, Brian digs down into the sand pile and finds a cache of eggs. It must have been a turtle, he decides, coming up onto the land to lay its eggs. Cute!
- When he sees the eggs, Brian realizes how hungry he is. There are seventeen of them, but he's not sure how to go about eating them. He has nothing to cook them in, and the idea of eating them raw grosses him out. You're not the only one, buddy.
- But they are food. He cuts one open with the hatchet (the outsides are tough and leathery) and forces himself to suck out the insides. They're greasy, and Brian doesn't like the way they taste, but he's so hungry that he eats six of them before he stops and decides to save some for later.
- Somehow eating the eggs makes him even more aware of his hunger. He licks the insides of the shells clean, and even tries to eat the shells themselves, but they're too tough and he can't get them down. This is the stuff Joe Rogan is made of.
- He decides to store the remaining eggs in the shelter, and eat only one a day to make them last.
- Brian realizes that in making this plan he's forgotten to think about when he'll be rescued. He reminds himself that he can't forget that. After all, that's what gives him hope, and he has to hold on to his hope.
- Brian transfers the eggs into the shelter, burying them there. Then he adds wood to the fire. He wants to keep busy, so that he can't think about the fact that he hasn't been rescued yet. He spends the morning gathering more wood and chopping it into small sticks.
- Checking his leg (which is feeling back to normal but still has holes in it from the porcupine quills), Brian notices that his body is changing—no, he's not transforming into a werewolf. Or a vampire. Sorry—it's not that kind of book. But he is becoming tan and lean and his skin is tougher than it had been before.
- His mind, he thinks, is also different. Since he's been in the woods, he's changed—he sees and hears things differently, more completely, not just noticing things the way he used to do. His body and mind work together now, too, in a different way.
- Deciding to get a signal fire ready, Brian finds a large flat stone area on the ridge over his shelter. This would be a perfect place for the fire, so he stocks the area with wood so he can start a fire quickly if he ever hears a plane engine overhead.
- After he gathers the wood, he sits on the ledge to rest and looks out over the lake. The lake and the woods surrounding it are beautiful and full of life. Pretty peaceful.
- He watches a bird dip into the water and come up with a fish in its beak, and this gives him the idea of trying to catch fish for himself.
- Brian goes down to the water and looks into the lake. He sees lots of fish, as well as a crayfish crawling through the shallows.
- He tries to grab a fish with his hands, but the sly little suckers are just too quick. He thinks about making a spear, but it's getting late, and for now, he decides to look for some raspberries and eat his one turtle egg for dinner.
- He'll just put it on his ever-evolving to-do list.
- Brian makes a fish spear, but can't get it to work. With his hatchet and a branch from a willow tree, he spent hours and hours carving a long spear with two points on the end, but when he tries to use it, the fish scatter away before he can spear them.
- He decides that instead of the spear, he needs a bow and arrow. It's go time.
- He'll need to "invent" a bow and arrow, he decides, and he wonders if the very first bow and arrow had been invented in similar circumstances. (Since this weapon existed before anything we modern humans have written down, we can't quite be sure.)
- He eats a turtle egg, then goes to pick some raspberries. At that point, he notices that his stomach feels full. He thinks that his stomach must have shrunk—even though he's hungry in a way, it takes a lot less food to make him feel that he's had enough. (And we're talking about a pubescent boy here.)
- Searching for some wood to make a bow with, Brian is suddenly startled by a bird exploding into the air from somewhere near his feet. He had gotten so close to it—maybe he'd be able to catch one eventually with a spear or a bow.
- Brian finds some wood that he thinks might work for the bow. While he's working on cutting it from the tree, he hears a faint buzzing sound in the distance. He's so focused on thinking about the bow, though, that he doesn't realize for a while what the sound is—it's the engine of a plane, off in the distance! Rescue!
- Throwing down the wood, Brian hoofs it as fast as he can to the place where he's set up the signal fire. As he runs, he pictures what it will be like to be rescued, how he'll feel when he's telling his father about everything that's happened to him.
- As he reaches the bluff and works to get the fire started, he hears the sound of the engine change, as if the plane has abruptly changed direction. He builds up the fire so it's large and powerful, but the plane has moved off into the distance.
- Convinced that this was his last chance to be rescued, Brian sinks to his knees in despair, all his hopes gone. "They would not come," the narrator tells us. "He was alone and there was nothing for him" (12.30).
- And that's the end of that uplifting chapter.
- Brian is standing at the edge of the lake watching the water. He stands stock still with his bow in his hand, but he's not looking for a fish. Turns out he is sick of fish. Instead, he's looking for one of the birds—he calls them foolbirds—that live on the edge of the lake.
- Sensing something, he's stopped what he was doing, and he's just holding still, listening and looking.
- This has happened to him before—somehow his senses told him that he needed to pay attention, that something had changed—and it turned out that the bear was nearby with her cubs. Brian turns slowly, and up on the bank he sees a wolf watching him. Yowza.
- But Brian doesn't panic—oh no. He sees the wolf as part of the woods and part of everything else, and he nods to it. The wolf watches him a little longer, then walks off into the woods, followed by three other wolves.
- How's that for a cool encounter?
- Brian has changed since the last time we've seen him. It's been forty-seven days since the crash, and forty-two days since he'd heard the plane go by overhead (at the end of the last chapter). After the plane had flown away, Brian gave in to hopelessness—he let the fire go out, didn't eat, even tried to kill himself by cutting his arm with the hatchet. He wasn't able to do it, though, and finally fell into a restless, troubled sleep.
- When he woke up, dried blood on his arm from the cuts, he realized that he'd been changed by the experience of the plane flying overhead. "He was not the same and would never be again like he had been," the narrator tells us. "[H]e would not die, he would not let death in again" (13.17).
- So Brian started again, trying to learn and to survive—but he made a lot of mistakes. He had spent several days making a bow and some arrows, only to have the bow splinter into pieces the first time he tried to use it. He made another bow from a different kind of wood, but still had no success catching fish. Finally, he figured out that he needed to adjust his aim slightly to compensate for the way light bends underwater. (Check out an explanation of that cool physics phenomenon.)
- Once he figured this out, Brian was able to catch fish pretty easily. He caught at least twenty of them that first day, roasting them over the fire on a stick and eating until he was full.
- When he went to sleep that night, he was hopeful again, although it was not a hope of being rescued. Just a hope in his ability to take care of himself.
- Mistakes mean a lot in Brian's new life, the narrator tells us. Back in the city, most mistakes were no big deal, but in the woods, even a small mistake can have serious, even fatal consequences. Spraining an ankle, missing what you're trying to hunt, getting sick—any of these things could lead to starvation and death for Brian. Talk about pressure.
- One of the biggest lessons Brian has learned is that "food is all" (14.5). Food is the most important thing in surviving. (Shmoop thinks this needs to be changed to read "chocolate is all," but unfortunately Gary Paulsen didn't ask for our opinion.)
- Soon after he'd learned to catch fish, Brian had been awakened in the night to find a skunk in the shelter with him, digging up the buried turtle eggs. Angry that the skunk was trying to steal his food, Brian had thrown sand at it and yelled at it to get out. The skunk responded by hitting Brian in the face with its spray. Great.
- Brian screamed and ran to the lake, desperately splashing his face over and over with water. Even so, he was blinded for nearly two hours after the skunk attack, and his eyes hurt him for weeks afterward. And bonus, the skunk had dug up all the eggs and eaten them anyway.
- Brian learns from this episode that food has to be protected. He decides to improve his shelter by tearing it down and rebuilding it. He spends three days weaving branches together, so tightly that nothing can get in unless it tears the whole thing down.
- Next, Brian decides that he needs a way to store food. If something should happen to keep him from fishing or hunting, stored up food could make the difference between surviving or… not.
- With the help of a dead pine tree that he converts into a kind of ladder, Brian fashions a little food storage compartment out of a hollow in the rock above his shelter. He weaves a little door to cover the hollow so that animals can't get at it. He's not sure, though, what kind of food he can store there.
- It occurs to Brian that he can block off a portion of the lake, trapping fish in it to be speared and eaten later. Using rocks and a kind of gate woven together with sticks, he makes a little mini pond full of fish. He's learning not only to survive but to plan ahead for lean times.
- This kid is one tough cookie.
- Brian counts the days by making a mark in a stone near his shelter. His sense of time, though, is different from what it used to be. Days aren't really important anymore—events, things that happen to him, are what mark the passage of time.
- One of the most important days is the day he first catches an animal for meat. He craves meat and thinks a lot about his mother's roasts, turkey, or pork chops. Mmm.
- The "foolbirds" seem to be everywhere, but at first Brian can't figure out how to catch them; they blend in to the woods so well that one of them might be two feet away from him and still he doesn't see it until it suddenly explodes upward in flight. Tricky little buggers.
- But one day, Brian decides that he will get a foolbird no matter what. Things don't go well at first, and he still can't seem to see the birds until after they've flown. Finally, frustrated, Brian sits down at the base of a tree to think, but he can't come up with any new ideas.
- When he gets up to walk on, another foolbird takes off from right next to where he was sitting. As it flies, Brian notices its shape for the first time—it's a little pointed in front, and fatter at the other end. Seeing the birds in this new way gives him the key that he needs to outsmart their camouflage. Instead of looking for a color or for a whole bird, he starts to look for the bird's shape, and suddenly he starts finding the birds everywhere.
- Perspective is everything.
- Using this new perspective, Brian tries to catch a bird with his bow, but the arrows don't fly far enough or accurately enough. He tries throwing his fishing spear, but he's just not fast enough to get the birds before they can fly away.
- Eventually, Brian develops a method of sneaking up on the birds—walking sideways toward them until he's close enough to thrust the spear, instead of throwing it. By doing this he's able to catch and kill one of the foolbirds.
- But taking the bird back to the shelter, Brian's not quite sure how to go about eating it. He knows that he has to clean it, but he doesn't know how. (They don't teach you this stuff in school.)
- Finally, he just plucks the feathers off—they come off easily, pulling the skin off as well—and chops off the head and feet with his hatchet. Please, boys and girls, don't try this at home.
- Saving a few of the feathers to use for his arrows, and taking the discarded parts down to the lake to lure fish into his trap, Brian puts the rest of the bird on a stick to roast over the fire. It takes him a while to figure out how best to cook it to avoid burning some and leaving the rest raw, but he tries to be patient.
- When he finally eats the bird, nothing has ever tasted so good to him. Hey, there's nothing like freshly killed bird.
- Brian stands on the edge of the lake thinking about the day of First Meat (this is what he calls the day that he caught that first foolbird). He also thinks about his First Arrow Day (when he first put together an arrow that flew with enough accuracy to hit a rabbit or a bird) and First Rabbit Day (when he killed and ate his first rabbit). Thankfully, the narrator doesn't give us too many details about the demise of Fluffy.
- Today, though, Brian's trying to get a foolbird. Sidling up to it slowly, never looking directly at it, he advances on it little by little until he's close enough to shoot an arrow. The first two arrows miss the bird, but the third one finds its mark.
- After retrieving the bird and his arrows, Brian walks to the lakeshore to wash his hands in the water.
- Suddenly Brian senses something behind him. He starts to turn, only to be attacked head-on by a large moose. The moose slams against him, throwing him into the water, then follows after him to attack again.
- Struggling for air and hoping he's not hurt too badly, Brian surfaces to find the moose standing nearby calmly chewing a plant. Real classy, moose.
- He tries to crawl out of the water, but the moose attacks again, slamming him back with her head and her hooves. Surfacing, Brian again sees the moose, chewing calmly, a few feet off. This is one indecisive moose. Moving very slowly so as not to attract her attention, he manages to make it to the shore and crawl up into the trees and brush. Whew.
- Hiding behind a tree, Brian realizes his ribs have been hurt pretty badly. Something's wrong with his right shoulder, and he's having trouble breathing. When the moose moves off into the distance, Brian decides to go back to the lake for his spear and bow and bird, all of which he'd dropped when the moose attacked.
- After retrieving his things, he walks slowly back to his shelter, stopping often to lean against a tree and ease his breathing. Finally back in the shelter, he falls asleep trying to make sense of the moose's attack.
- Brian is woken up by a noise, a low roaring sound of wind outside the shelter. The pain in his ribs has lessened a little, luckily. But the sound scares him—it's a bad sound, and he feels as if it's "coming for him" (16.26). Dun dun dun.
- Stepping outside of the shelter to study the sky, Brian thinks that the sound is familiar, like something he's read about or heard before on television.
- Then he realizes. It's the sound of an approaching tornado. Yowza.
- As he turns to go back into the shelter, the tornado hits, slamming him face-first onto the ground. It whips him against the wall of the shelter and scatters all of his belongings out onto the lake. Brian hears trees snapping outside and has to claw at the rocks to keep from being pulled out of the shelter by the wind.
- With all of his tools gone (except for his hatchet, still hanging from his belt), Brian lies in the darkness of the now fireless shelter, thinking about how quickly things have changed for him. This time, though, he's determined to rebuild—he has his hatchet, and he's tough, he thinks, so that's all he really needs. You go, Brian.
- When he wakes up the next morning, Brian's ribs are still hurting. He goes to the lake to get a drink of water, and he sees something bright sticking out of the middle of the lake. No, it's not Excalibur.
- At first he can't figure out what it is, but then he realizes that it's the tail of the plane. The tornado somehow flipped the plane around and raised the tail up in the water. Seeing the plane, Brian thinks of the pilot, and a great sadness washes over him. He concentrates on the pilot and wishes him rest.
- Brian gathers birch and wood and starts a fire. Even though he's moving slowly because of his injuries, his skill and experience allow him to get it started much more quickly than he did the first time.
- Next, he rebuilds his shelter door as best he can. It's a rough job, but he'll fix it later when he's back on his feet. Seeing the damage the tornado has done to the woods, right now he's just feeling lucky to be alive. (And we're lucky to just be reading this from the comfort of our soft patch of grass.)
- Lying next to the fire that night, Brian makes plans for finding food and reclaiming his camp the next day. He thinks about the tail of the plane sticking out of the water, and he suddenly remembers the survival pack that the pilot had loaded onto the plane.
- He wonders what might be in the pack, and thinks how much he'd like to have it. He falls asleep thinking of the plane, and planning for the next day.
- In the morning, Brian makes a new fish spear so that he can have something to eat. The whole time he's working on the spear, though, he's thinking about the plane. He catches some fish and cooks them over the fire.
- Meanwhile, he's decided to try to make a raft to get out into the water and to lie on while he works to get into the plane. He tries several different ways, but nothing seems to work.
- Finally, it occurs to him that he needs to use tree logs with limbs sticking out so he can weave them together. Yeah, we were just about to suggest that.
- He constructs a raft using this plan, and by late afternoon, he's done. That was easy.
- He wades out into the lake, pushing the raft in front of him. It's slow going, and he realizes that it'll be dark by the time he reaches the plane. Although Brian's really impatient to get to work on the plane, he decides to turn back and start fresh in the morning.
- He catches more fish and cooks them over the fire. Thinking briefly of his mother and father, Brian looks at the amazing beauty of the sunset over the lake, wishing he had someone to share it with. That's a pretty lonely feeling.
- In the morning, Brian goes straight to his raft and wades out into the water toward the plane. It takes him over two hours to push and kick his way out to the plane.
- Using his torn windbreaker to secure the raft to the tail of the plane, he climbs up onto the tail and soaks up the rays. All the windows and openings in the plane are under water, and he tries to think about how he can get inside the plane.
- He thinks briefly about the pilot in the front of the plane, down at the bottom of the lake. Ugh.
- Getting into the water and pulling himself around the plane as best he can, Brian tries to find a way in, but there is none.
- He's out of ideas.
- Brian works himself around the plane two more times, but still can't figure out a way to get in. In frustration, he bangs his fist against the plane, only to find that the plane's aluminum cover gives easily under the force. Well, that's convenient.
- He pulls out his hatchet, thinking that maybe he can use it to cut his way into the plane and, amazingly, it works—he quickly cuts a triangular hole in the plane's side.
- While he's working on pulling the aluminum back to make the hole larger, he suddenly drops the hatchet. He feels it fall into the water and bump into his foot on its way to the bottom of the lake.
- Major, epic fail.
- At first, he can't believe what's happened. Without his hatchet, he thinks, he has nothing—no tools, no fire, no food.
- Determined to get the hatchet back, Brian takes a deep breath and plunges into the water. He doesn't know how deep the lake is, but he gets down about six or seven feet before he has to come back up for air. He tries again, kicking against the plane for more momentum, and is able to grab the hatchet from where it's settled at the bottom of the lake. Just barely making it back up to the surface before he runs out of air, he rests awhile on the side of the raft before turning back to the plane.
- Eventually Brian is able to make the hole in the plane large enough to fit his body through. Although it makes him nervous, he lowers himself into the hole and, coming up several times for air, he dives again and again into the wreck.
- Finally, he spots the survival bag. As he tugs it back to the surface, he catches sight of the remains of the pilot, badly decomposed.
- But wait, it gets better. Brian vomits in the water, almost drowning before he's able to kick his way back to the surface, still clutching the survival bag. Remind us not to go for a dip in the lake anytime soon, okay?
- Slowly, Brian uses the raft to get himself and the bag back to the lakeshore. The bag is so heavy that once on the shore he has to drag it back to the shelter. It takes several hours, and by the time he finishes he's too exhausted even to look into the bag to see what it holds. Instead, he sinks into sleep.
- This is called suspense. We don't know about you, but Shmoop definitely wants to see what's in the bag.
- The next morning Brian opens the survival bag. In it he finds "unbelievable riches" (19.1)—a sleeping bag, a cooking set, waterproof matches and some lighters, a knife, a first-aid kit, scissors, and a fishing kit. Wow.
- The bag also contains a rifle. The rifle makes Brian feel peculiar, as though he's removed from everything around him. He uses the lighter to re-start the fire, which has gone out during the night. That makes him feel strange, too.
- Returning to his rummaging in the survival pack, Brian finds a little electronic device in a waterproof bag. At first he thinks it's a radio or a cassette player, but when he examines it more, he realizes that it's an emergency transmitter.
- Or not. He flips the switch back and forth a few times, but nothing happens, so he sets it aside to keep looking through the survival bag.
- He finds two bars of soap, and bag after bag of freeze-dried food. Overwhelmed by all the choices he has available to him, Brian selects a beef and potato dinner, an orange drink, and a peach whip for dessert. Using water from the lake and his new cooking pot, he cooks the food over the fire.
- Suddenly, as he's sitting savoring the orange drink and waiting for the stew to be ready, a plane appears. Brian hears a roar above his head and then suddenly a bushplane with floats passes over him and glides to a stop on the lake.
- And just like that, he's rescued.
- The plane's pilot steps out onto the sand in front of Brian's shelter. He tells Brian that he picked up the emergency transmission, then saw the crashed plane sticking out of the water as he flew over the lake. He asks if Brian is "that kid," the one they were looking for a couple of months ago.
- Brian, not quite believing that he is finally being rescued, introduces himself to the pilot. Then, seeing that the stew and the peach whip are nearly done, he asks the pilot if he'd like something to eat.
- In the epilogue, the narrator tells us that Brian had spent fifty-four days alone on the lake before being rescued.
- The experience changes him in many ways. Um… duh.
- Physically, he's leaner and tougher than he was before. He's also far more observant, and far more thoughtful. He no longer takes any food for granted, and he continues to be amazed by the plentiful and abundant resources that are available to him back in his ordinary life. (Didactic, much?)
- Brian also does research to learn more about the animals and plants in the woods. The food that he called "gut cherries" are known as chokecherries, and are commonly used to make jam. The "foolbirds" are ruffed grouse. The fish he ate were bluegills, sunfish, and perch. That's more than we learned in science class.
- Brian has dreams about the lake and the woods. They aren't bad dreams, just vivid and realistic dreams of his life on the lake.
- If Brian hadn't been rescued when he was, the narrator tells us, he would have had a very rough time in the woods when winter came. The lake would freeze, making the fish inaccessible, and prey would become scarce.
- Despite a brief period of family unity and happiness when Brian is first rescued, Brian's family situation quickly returns to what it was before the crash. His father goes back to work in the oil fields and his mother keeps seeing the man in the station wagon.
- Brian is never able to tell his father about the man or tell him the secret about his mother's affair.
- Womp womp.