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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.