Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
In many ways, Hatchet manifests as a contemporary take on the Robinson Crusoe plot. Paulsen recalls an incident during his stay in the Philippines where he saw an airplane crash, with military personnel unable to save the victims; it has been speculated that these youthful memories partially influenced the plot of Hatchet. The story’s thirteen-year-old protagonist, Brian Robeson, finds himself at the mercy of the Canadian woods after the Cessna 406 taking him up to oil fields where his father works as a mechanical engineer crash lands into a lake.
While the plot focuses on the survival narrative, a conflict of Brian versus nature, a large internal conflict echoes throughout Hatchet. The entire reason Brian flies out to see his father in Canada is the result of his parent’s divorce; in flashback, the reader learns that Brian discovers his mother during an extramarital affair. That Brian retains that information as a secret, constantly reiterated throughout the story as he ponders his predicament, compels the reader to wonder how much blame he places on his mother for his situation of being stranded. Had Brian disclosed the secret to his father, the assumption is made that his father might have gained different visitation rights rather than flying out for summer visits, which in turn has caused Brian’s predicament. This inherent causality within Hatchet becomes a point of disgust and self-loathing for Brian...
(The entire section is 594 words.)
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In the tradition of Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson, Hatchet is a story of individual survival against great odds. It tells how a routine journey turned into a life-threatening and life-changing experience. The central character, thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson (whose name echoes his literary ancestry), is stranded alone at a lake deep in the Canadian wilderness for fifty-four days. A small plane, carrying Brian from his mother's home in Hampton, New York, to the oil fields in Canada where his father works, crashes after the pilot dies in flight from a heart attack.
From the moment that Brian begins piloting the Cessna 406 and guides it to a lucky crash-landing in the water, the odds against him are immense. Before he died the pilot fortuitously let Brian experience the controls and taught him enough to keep the plane from a fatal spin or stall. Brian is a city boy, unused to the woods, who emerges from the wreckage with only one tool, a hatchet. He is injured in the crash so that his initial search for food is hampered by pain. He has no idea where he is located and no means of contacting the outside world. His isolation is spiritual as well as physical because his parents have divorced only a month before and because Brian bears a terrible secret about his mother's responsibility for the break up. Possessing the Secret has alienated Brian from his mother, yet he feels guilty about the distance he cannot help but put between...
(The entire section is 283 words.)
Chapter 1 Summary
Thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson is on his way to the rugged Canadian wilderness, where his father works in the oil fields in the far northern area bordering the tundra. Brian is the lone passenger in a Cessna 406 bushplane, which is also carrying some drilling equipment and a survival pack to be used in case of an emergency. The plane’s pilot, a taciturn man in his mid-forties, has said little to Brian since directing him to take the copilot’s seat just before takeoff in Hampton, New York.
In the beginning, Brian had been consumed with the excitement of his first trip in a single-engine plane. He had observed with interest the scenery as well as the myriad instruments and controls on the dashboard in front of him. Eventually, though, the drone of the engine and the endlessly forested terrain all around had become monotonous, and Brian had been left with time to think about the events leading up to this lonely trip.
Brian’s parents have recently divorced, and it seems that everything has happened quickly since Brian’s mother asked for the split. The courts have decreed that Brian should live with his mother during the school year and spend the summers with his father in Canada. Brian feels as if his entire world has come apart, and the pressure upon him is intensified because he is privy to a secret about his mother that he knows is the underlying cause of the breakup.
Brian looks over at the pilot, and after a while the man seems to open up a bit and acknowledges him. Learning that this is his passenger’s first ride in the copilot’s seat of a plane, he begins to explain some of the controls and instruments, and he even lets Brian take the wheel and work the pedals that steer the aircraft. At the end of the impromptu lesson, the pilot is distracted by a pain in his left shoulder. Attributing his discomfort to the aches and pains of growing old, the pilot lapses into silence again, and Brian resumes looking out the window and thinking.
Brian had been sullen on the ride to the airport with his mother. Although she had asked him repeatedly what was bothering him, he had been unable to confront her with “The Secret.” Despite his recalcitrance, Brian’s mother had given him a present just before they reached the airport. The present was a hatchet, “the kind with a steel handle and a rubber handgrip,” enclosed in a case he could wear on his belt.
Brian’s attention is...
(The entire section is 605 words.)
Chapter 2 Summary
Brian is initially paralyzed by fear in the moments after he realizes the seriousness of his situation. Although the plane is flying on its own for now, Brian knows that eventually he will have to do something, but he does not know what to do. He reaches toward the pilot, remembering vaguely about CPR, but he does not know exactly how to do it, and it is impossible to maneuver in the cramped quarters of the Cessna anyway. Brian places his hand on the pilot’s chest but can detect no heartbeat or breathing; he is almost certain that the man is dead.
The plane encounters some turbulence, and Brian feels its nose dip downward. Knowing that if it continues to fly at this angle, the plane will soon hit the trees, Brian puts his hands on the control wheel and his feet on the rudder pedals, trying to recall from his brief lesson how to get the plane back on track. After a period of trial and error, Brian manages to steady the plane, then he tries to figure out what he should do next.
Brian studies the dials on the plane’s dashboard but finds them confusing, “a jumble of numbers and lights.” He then remembers the radio. Taking the headset gingerly from the pilot’s head, he places it on his own and positions the small microphone in front of his mouth. Pressing the switch on the microphone as he had seen the pilot do in his final moments, Brian speaks into it but hears no response. Terror overtakes him, and he begins to scream over and over, “Help! Somebody help me! I’m in this plane and don’t know...don’t know....”
In the midst of his panic, a thought comes to Brian. He remembers having used a CB radio in his uncle’s truck once and recalls that he had to switch the mike off in order to hear anyone else. Releasing the switch, he hears a faint voice through the noise and static. Brian manages to communicate his situation to the speaker, who asks for his flight number and location. Frustrated because he does not know the answers to these questions, Brian instead gives his name, destination, and point of departure. The tenuous signal is lost, and he does not hear the voice again.
Hopelessly accepting that he is on his own, Brian considers his options. He concludes that he has two choices—he can allow the plane to continue until it runs out of fuel or he can pull the throttle and force it down now. Either way, he is looking at what will almost certainly be a crash landing; knowing this and...
(The entire section is 666 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary
Brian’s brain is consumed with a single thought after the engine stalls—he is going to die. As the plane goes into a very fast glide, Brian looks desperately out the windshield for a place to land, but all he sees before him are trees. Suddenly, slightly to the right of his flight path, he sees an L-shaped lake, which gives him a glimmer of hope. Brian begins to maneuver the plane tentatively. He first pulls back on the wheel to bring the nose up, but his adjustment also makes the plane slow dramatically and he is afraid the craft will stop altogether and plummet precipitously straight down onto the trees. He quickly pushes the wheel back in, and the speed of the plane increases a little bit but it continues to lose altitude. The rugged terrain ahead is densely wooded, and the lake seems completely out of reach.
Just when Brian is sure that he is going to crash into the forest, he comes upon “a channel of fallen trees, a wide place leading to the lake.” The plane drops into this space, and Brian eases back on the wheel and prepares himself for impact. He is momentarily blinded when the plane’s wings catch the pines at the edge of the clearing and are torn from the fuselage, and his head is slammed violently into the wheel. The plane, continuing its forward momentum, breaks through the trees and crashes into the lake, skipping once on a surface “as hard as concrete” before diving deep beneath the water.
Brian sees nothing but “blue, cold blue-green” all around him, and he hears someone screaming but does not realize he is making the sound. He instinctively claws at his seat-belt catch, tearing his nails loose but finally releasing it. His windbreaker catches on the jagged edges of glass as he pulls himself out of the shattered windshield, but he rips it loose, shredding it. Freed, Brian reaches desperately toward the surface of the lake, but it seems interminably far. Just when his lungs are about to burst and he begins to suck in water, Brian breaks into the light and somehow manages to swim to the shore.
When at last Brian’s hands clutch grass and brush and his chest rests on land, everything suddenly stops. Something seems to explode inside his head, and he spirals into another world, into nothingness.
(The entire section is 401 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary
Brian dreams about The Secret, the memory “slicing deep into him with hate.” He had been riding his bike with his friend Terry. As they passed the Amber Mall, Brian had just happened to look over Terry’s head to see his mother sitting in a station wagon with a stranger. The stranger was a man with short blond hair and wearing a white tennis shirt. Brian’s mother had not seen him but he had clearly seen her.
Brian wakes up screaming, and for a moment he does not know where he is. Remembering the crash, he screams until his breath is gone. He tries to move but finds that he hurts everywhere. Awareness slowly dawns on him and he realizes that, amazingly, he is alive. Brian discovers that he is lying with his legs still in the lake. He manages to pull himself out of the water and crawl to a small stand of brush, where he curls up and abandons himself to a deep, dreamless sleep.
When Brian awakens again, it is dark, and he at first begins to panic. Turning his head, he notices that the sky is lightening across the lake. He realizes it is morning. Brian rolls onto his back and takes stock of his condition. He aches with an “all over pain.” He discovers that although he is battered, he seems to be able to move freely and nothing appears to be broken.
Brian’s forehead is “massively swollen to the touch” and feels extremely tender. He acknowledges that he “could have been done” and appreciates the mere fact that he has survived. With sadness and a sense of horror, he thinks of the pilot still strapped to his seat in the plane at the bottom of the lake, dead.
Pulling himself into a sitting position with his back against a tree, Brian watches the sun come up over the end of the lake. He finds that he cannot think clearly; everything seems to be happening in a haze. Suddenly, with the warmth of the rising sun, hordes of mosquitoes attack him, “thick, whining, buzzing masses of them.” Brian tries to protect himself from the vicious creatures but quickly finds that there is no escape. Hunkering down beneath his tattered windbreaker, Brian manages to endure the onslaught of the stinging, annoying insects. Thankfully, when the sun reaches its zenith and shines on him directly, the mosquitoes inexplicably disappear.
Brian tries to stand and finds that the effort leaves him so weak at first that he almost collapses. Once he regains some steadiness, he surveys his surroundings,...
(The entire section is 684 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
Brian awakens in the midafternoon with an unbelievable thirst. He looks down at the lake and sees water aplenty there, but he is not sure if it is safe to drink. Brian thinks of the pilot, strapped down in the plane at the bottom of the lake, and is momentarily repulsed. But when he cannot think of another place from which to get water, he goes down to the lake and drinks.
Although Brian had intended to allow himself only a sip or two of the life-restoring liquid, once he feels the water trickle past his parched lips and tongue, he cannot stop. He drinks until his stomach is swollen, then he staggers back up the bank and is immediately sick. Even though he throws up most of the water he has taken, Brian finds that his thirst is gone and that, for the first time since the crash, he can think clearly. Taking in his surroundings, he considers his situation, diligently trying to maintain a sense of calm and to think about one thing at a time.
Breaking things down in his mind to an elemental level that he can handle, Brian says to himself:
My name is Brian Robeson...and I am alone in the north woods of Canada.
Seized with a momentary sense of optimism, Brian reflects that although no one knows exactly where he is, when his parents discover he is missing, they will certainly arrange to have search parties look for him. Brian knows from news reports and movies he has seen about lost planes, that pilots routinely file flight plans detailing their projected route before they set out on any journey. It should be only a matter of time before rescuers will find him; perhaps they will even come today! Something about his reasoning bothers Brian, however, although he cannot quite put his finger on what it is. In the meantime, he becomes aware of another pressing need—he is hungry, filled with an emptiness that roars within him with an urgency that will not long be denied.
Brian has never before had to worry about having enough to eat, but looking around he sees nothing in his immediate surroundings that might serve to ease his hunger. Initially discouraged, he remembers his English teacher,
a guy named Perpich, who was always talking about...thinking positive, staying on top of things.
Brian decides to take stock of what he has, and he empties his pockets. He finds that he has some small change, a nail clipper,...
(The entire section is 689 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
Brian remembers a time when he and his friend Terry had gone to the park and pretended they were lost in the woods. They had discussed what they would need to do to survive and concluded that building a lean-to would be one of the first things that must be done. Brain decides this is what he should do now, and he sets out to find a good place to build a shelter. Wanting to stay by the lake so he will be visible should rescuers arrive, Brian explores the stone ridge to his left. On the ridge’s north side, he discovers a “scooped-out” area in the stone under a ledge; all he will have to do is wall off part of the opening, and he will have the perfect shelter.
When he begins to gather pieces of wood to close up the opening, Brian is overcome by weakness. He realizes that before he attempts to do anything else, he will have to find something to eat. He tries to remember anything he might have read or seen about foraging for food in the wilderness, and he recalls a show about a survival course taken by a group of air force pilots. One of the pilots had found beans on a bush, which she had cooked with lizard meat to make a sort of stew. Brian does not think there are beans where he is, but he conjectures that there must be berries.
Stepping outside, he notes that the sun is high and decides it must be early afternoon. At home, his mother would be getting ready to go see him—the man his father does not know about, whose presence was behind the divorce.
Brian sets out to find some berries, observing his surroundings carefully so he will not get lost. He walks slowly up the lakeshore for about two hundred yards, toward a stand of brush that seems promising. He sees a flock of “reddish orange birds” flying into the undergrowth. When he looks at them more closely, he finds that they are eating berries.
The berries, which are half as big as grapes and grow in bunches, are different from any Brian has ever seen. Famished, he grabs handfuls of them and stuffs them in his mouth; they are bitter and have large pits in them, but he is so hungry that he eats great quantities, pits and all. He eats until his stomach is full then makes a pouch out of his torn windbreaker and gathers more berries to take back to the shelter. As he retraces his steps along the lakeside, he notices there is driftwood everywhere and wonders how he might eventually be able to make a fire.
Strengthened by the...
(The entire section is 563 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary
Brian awakens to excruciating pain in his stomach; it is as if the berries he ate earlier have “exploded in the center of him,” ripping and tearing. He crawls out of his shelter onto the sand and is sick for over an hour. When he is finally empty and “drained of all strength,” he returns into his shelter but cannot go back to sleep. His mind wanders restlessly, bringing back the memory of his mother sitting in the station wagon with the strange man, kissing him passionately. The kiss has become The Secret, and Brian feels all over again the shame of seeing his mother in this compromising situation. Eventually, he drifts off to sleep again.
When Brian reawakens, the sun is streaming through the doorway and the mosquitoes have returned en masse. He recalls the terrible sickness of the night before, which he knows was caused by eating too many “gut cherries.” Brian goes outside and cleans up the mess he made in the sand then goes down to the lake to wash and get a drink.
The water is so clear that Brian can see his reflection. His face is cut and swollen from the crash and the mosquito bites, and the wound on his forehead has healed but is crusted with dried blood. Consumed with self-pity, he sits on the bank and cries “long...wasted tears.”
When he is all cried out, Brian realizes that his hunger has returned. He decides to try the gut cherries again, but this time he chooses only those that are ripe and eats them in moderation. In reality, they are “awful berries,” but they are food; after consuming a small portion, he sorts through his supply, putting some aside to eat again that night if he has to.
It is a beautiful day, and Brian decides to spend some time looking for other kinds of berries. As he leaves his shelter, he stands back and examines it and is proud of his work. Brian is surprised to realize that he has begun to think of the crude dwelling as home.
Once again taking precautions so as not to get lost, Brian ventures farther up the shore than he did the day before. He discovers another path through the forest torn out by the wind, similar to the one on which the plane had come down. To his delight, Brian finds raspberries growing in the clearing. He eats enough to satiate his hunger then gathers more to take back to the shelter.
While he is busy packing the fruit into his torn windbreaker, Brian hears “a slight noise” behind him and is...
(The entire section is 675 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary
Brian is awakened in the middle of the night by a low growl accompanied by a terrible smell. Although he can see nothing in the impenetrable darkness, a stench of rot permeates the shelter. Brian then hears a slithering sound near his feet. Terrified, he throws his hatchet at the source of the sound and kicks out as hard as he can. The hatchet misses its target and instead strikes the rock wall, inducing a shower of sparks; Brian’s leg is simultaneously “torn with pain.”
Screaming and backing against the wall, Brian thinks he can make out a “bulk in the darkness” moving away from him and back out through the door of the shelter. When it is clear that the creature is not going to return, Brian examines the source of pain in his leg and discovers
a group of needles that have been driven through his pants and into the fleshy part of his calf.
Understanding that his attacker must have been a porcupine, Brian notes how situations can change quickly. He had just gone to sleep with a sense of satisfaction and peace, and now, a few short hours later, everything is different. Brian hardens his resolve and begins the odious but necessary task of removing the painful quills. There are eight embedded in his leg, and he bravely jerks them out, one by one.
When the job is done, Brian’s leg throbs with an intense, aching pain, and he is overcome once again by waves of self-pity. He begins to cry. This time, when he is all cried out, he looks back on the time wasted and realizes “the most important rule of survival.” Brian understands that feeling sorry for his self just does not work; after he had finished crying, not one thing about his situation had changed.
Brian finds that his physical patterns are already being altered as he adapts to the requirements of his new environment. He falls into a light sleep, not dreaming until right before daylight. In the initial segment of his dream, he sees his father, who is trying to tell him something, but Brian cannot comprehend his message. He then sees his friend Terry, who is making a fire at a barbecue pit. Terry, too, seems to want to communicate something to Brian, but again, he does not know what it is.
Brian awakens to the dim light of morning. As he eats some raspberries, he sees his hatchet on the ground where it landed after he threw it at the porcupine. Reflecting that the hatchet is his...
(The entire section is 569 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary
To his dismay, Brian discovers that although he has the basic elements to make a fire, actually getting one started is not easy. By striking the rock wall of his shelter with his hatchet, he has no trouble making sparks, but getting these sparks to ignite is another matter. Brian tries directing the sparks onto piles of dried grass and twigs, but they only sputter there and die. Thinking he needs something finer for fuel, he shreds the twenty-dollar bill in his pocket, but that does not work either.
Brian next gathers some of the light, paper-like bark of a nearby birch tree and brings back a baseball-size wad of the material into the shelter. He again strikes the rock, eliciting a stream of sparks that fall upon the bark and die—except for one, which seems to catch and glow for a moment before being extinguished. Brian concludes that he needs to make a nest in which the sparks can rest, so he goes out again to gather bark and returns with a ball of fluff the size of a grapefruit. He makes a depression in the middle of the ball with his thumb and positions the nest; this time, six or seven of the sparks find the fuel and smolder brightly before going out.
Brian knows he is close to solving the problem of making fire, so he continues to experiment. He thinks back to his science classes at school, trying to remember if his teachers ever explained what is needed to make a fire. He recalls that fire needs oxygen in addition to fuel. He makes another nest out of birch bark and strikes the rock with his hatchet. He then blows on the sparks as they come in contact with the fuel.
The first time Brian tries this, he blows too hard and snuffs out the sparks. He is more deliberate the second time, aiming the stream of his breath directly at the brightest spots in the nest. This time, the sparks take hold and move slowly up the pieces of bark. Before long, Brian has “a pocket of red as big as a quarter, a glowing red coal of heat,” which quickly bursts into flame.
Brian runs from the shelter to gather branches and sticks to keep the fire burning. When he has brought back enough, he regards the dancing flames and thinks happily, “I have a friend...named fire.” The curve of the rock forming the walls of his dwelling are perfectly formed so that the smoke from the fire is drawn up and out through the cracks in the roof. Brian reflects that not only will the fire provide heat, it will also keep creatures...
(The entire section is 496 words.)
Chapter 10 Summary
The fire Brian has worked so hard to make is at first so precious to him that he cannot bring himself to leave it. He sits by it throughout even the heat of the day, enjoying it and keeping it nourished. By late afternoon, he begins to plan again and goes out to gather more wood to keep the fire going throughout the night.
Brian looks back and sees the smoke from his fire curling up through the trees. He realizes that in addition to warmth, the fire has given him the ability to make a signal fire that might facilitate his rescue. He notices also that the smoke seems to keep the mosquitoes away.
As Brian settles in for the night, he thinks for the first time since the crash that “he might be getting a handle on things.” Tomorrow, he will have to go back out and find more food, and perhaps he will begin building a signal fire atop a nearby rocky area. In the meantime, the fire is keeping him warm and comfortable, and he drifts off to sleep.
Brian is awakened by the “slithering” sound of something being dragged across the sand. The fire has burned down, but he finds a bed of coals still glowing and builds the flames up again by adding additional wood. Listening carefully, he notes that the mysterious sound has stopped, and he thinks he hears the splash of something entering the water at the shoreline. Brian is not worried because he has the fire to protect him.
When he ventures outside in the morning, Brian discovers odd-looking tracks leading to a pile of sand in front of his shelter then returning to the lake. Reasoning that whatever animal has made the tracks must have come up from the water for a purpose, he examines the unusual mound it has left behind and finds seventeen perfectly round, table tennis ball–sized eggs. With delight, Brian understands that his night visitor had been a turtle! His body immediately recognizes the eggs as food, and his hunger intensifies so sharply that it takes his breath away. Brian realizes he has no way of cooking the eggs, and the thought of eating them raw repulses him; still, the eggs will provide him with desperately needed nourishment. He forces himself to break a hole into one and squeeze its contents into his mouth. The egg has a greasy texture, and he swallows as fast as he can, fighting to keep it down. His stomach eventually takes it and clamors for more.
Brian eats six eggs in rapid succession then disciplines himself to save the...
(The entire section is 487 words.)
Chapter 11 Summary
Brian is overcome by depression when he thinks about how long it is taking rescuers to find him, but he finds that if he keeps busy he is better able to maintain a healthy mental state. Fortunately, there is always plenty that must be done to ensure his comfort and survival.
Two days after his initial success building a fire, Brian digs a hole near his sleeping area in which to store his turtle eggs, adds wood to the fire, and cleans up his camp. Tidying up consists only of shaking out his windbreaker and smoothing the sand where he sleeps, but it is a routine that helps him maintain focus. Brian has decided to always have enough wood on hand for three days, which is actually a “staggering amount.” It will take all morning for him to gather the requisite quantity of wood.
Brian sees his reflection again when he stops to take a drink at the lake, and he notes that the swelling on his head is nearly gone. He also notices that his body is changing; although he has never been fat, he has always carried a little extra weight just above his belt. This is completely gone now, and his body is lean. His skin has been “cooked past burning” and is now nicely tanned, and his face is leathery from constant exposure to smoke from the fire.
Even more significant than the changes in Brian’s body are the differences in the way he thinks. Brian is more perceptive—he hears things more acutely and sees every detail of elements in his environment. His mind and body appear to have achieved a connection; he finds that he instinctively moves into the proper position in response to possible warnings of potential danger.
Initially, Brian had thought to keep a signal fire burning atop the rock ridge every day, but he quickly realizes he will never be able to keep up with the wood supply required. He decides instead to have everything ready up there, and if he should ever hear anything resembling a plane engine passing by, he will race up with a burning limb and ignite the fire.
On the last of many trips to carry fuel to the top of the stone bluff, Brian pauses and regards the breathtaking landscape below him. He has not seen the lake this way since coming down upon it in the doomed Cessna. After shaking off vague memories of fear, he is stunned by the sheer beauty of the scenery. As he watches, he sees a kingfisher dive into the water and emerge with a fish in its beak; it occurs to him that fish are...
(The entire section is 630 words.)
Chapter 12 Summary
Brian makes a spear with a two-pronged, needle-sharp point out of a willow branch, but he cannot seem to capture any fish with it. He stands in the shallows at the edge of the lake and watches the fish swarm around his legs, but he is not fast enough to catch one. Brian concludes that he needs something to propel the spear forward, some kind of “motive force”; a bow and arrow might serve his purposes nicely.
After eating an egg and banking the fire, Brian takes his hatchet and his spear and sets off to find a piece of wood that would make a good bow. Along the way, he picks a few berries and eats them, then he is surprised to find that his stomach is full. Brian sees that his stomach is “caved in...it must have shrunk.” Ironically, a sense of hunger remains within him simultaneously with the feeling of fullness. The hunger, though not intense, is always with him and seems to sharpen his senses; it makes him “look for things, see things. A hunger to make him hunt.”
As Brian steps over a log about halfway up the lake, he is startled by a “feathered...explosion” at his feet and catches a glimpse of a speckled brown and gray bird about the size of a very small chicken. He reflects that it must not be a very smart species because it has almost allowed him to step on it before flying away. Brian thinks he might one day catch one of these birds with his spear and that it would make a very good meal.
Brian finds a tree with long branches that react with a “vicious snap” when he pulls on them. He begins chopping one off where it connects to the tree, thinking that it might make a good bow. The wood is hard, and Brian is so engrossed in his work that he does not at first hear a “persistent whine” in the air. When he becomes aware of the noise and recognizes it as a plane, he throws down the limb and, taking his hatchet, races back to camp.
The sound grows louder and Brian runs as fast as he can. He imagines being rescued and perhaps even sitting with his father that very evening, telling him about all that has happened to him. At his shelter, he grabs a stick of wood that has a good flame and sprints around the edge of the ridge to where the fuel for the signal fire stands ready. Just when the flame takes and begins to grow, the sound of the engine moves away.
It is only moments before Brian has a roaring bonfire burning, but the plane is gone. As the smoke rises into the...
(The entire section is 532 words.)
Chapter 13 Summary
Brian is standing at the edge of the lake with his spear, trying to catch one of the “foolbirds,” the type he once almost stepped on. As he waits motionlessly at a spot where he knows a flock of them lives, he is suddenly overcome with a sense of danger. Brian does not yet perceive what constitutes the potential threat, but he knows his feeling is real. It has happened before that “something had come into him from outside to warn him”; Brian has never known the sense of unease that engulfs him at these times to be unfounded.
Waiting patiently for the danger to reveal itself, Brian remains unmoving, his senses acutely focused. Finally, he sees a wolf halfway up the hill, regarding him with “wide yellow eyes.” Brian has never seen a wolf before but this one is much larger than he had imagined them to be. He is momentarily afraid but then recognizes the wolf for what it is—a part of nature, “another part of all of it.” The wolf is claiming him, and Brian acknowledges it by nodding at it and smiling. After watching him for a while longer, the wolf turns and walks away. Three other wolves, “equally large...and beautiful,” follow, and Brian nods to each of them in turn. The wolves trot effortlessly back up the hill.
In an inexplicable way, Brian has “completely changed” in the forty-two days since the plane flew by without seeing him. Initially, he had let despair overcome him; he had forgotten to eat and had even let his fire go out. Brian had wanted to die, and in the dark of night, he had gone up on the ridge and attempted to take his own life by cutting himself. Inflicting wounds deep enough, though, had been impossible for him to do, and he had finally just fallen to the ground, wishing for death.
In the morning, Brian had found that “he was still there.” When the sun came up and he saw the cuts on his arm, he had been filled with loathing for what he had attempted. Two things, new and true, came into his mind. First, Brian realized that the disappointment he had experienced had made him stronger. Correspondingly, he had known that he would “not let death in again.”
Brian had made a lot of mistakes in the succeeding days, but he had learned from them. The bow he had carved was beautiful, but when he had tried it the first time, the wood had shattered and sent splinters into his face and almost blinded him. He had made a second bow but found that he still could not hit...
(The entire section is 576 words.)
Chapter 14 Summary
Small mistakes made in the city can usually be rectified, but the same mistakes made in the wilderness can quickly lead to disaster. Brian learns an important lesson early in his forced sojourn—in the forest, “food is...everything”—but the way in which he learns it almost kills him.
One night, Brian is awakened by a sound or perhaps a smell. Near the fire, completely undeterred by the smoke or by Brian himself, a skunk is digging for the buried turtle eggs. Brian at first almost smiles at the sight of the industrious little creature, but then he remembers that the eggs are his food and grabs a handful of sand and throws it at the skunk, hoping to scare it away. The skunk immediately retaliates by spraying Brian with “a direct shot aimed at his head.” The smell is “devastating” and the corrosive substance sears Brian’s eyes, blinding him.
Brian screams and stumbles out of the shelter and down to the lake, trying desperately to clear his eyes. He is unable to see at all for almost two hours, and he is terrified that the damage might be permanent, which will mean the end for him. Meanwhile, back at the shelter, the skunk eats all of the remaining eggs, unconcerned with the havoc it has created for Brian.
Fortunately, as the full effect of the spray wears off, Brian’s sight is restored, but the pain in his eyes persists for weeks and the smell that permeates just about everything does not go away for more than a month. Brian learns the hard way that he must always protect his food and have a shelter that offers security not only from the elements but from predators that would take his food from him. He realizes that he has been remiss in not fortifying his shelter, and the next day he takes steps to rectify his mistake.
Brian builds a stronger wall across the opening to the shelter out of heavy pine logs anchored in the dirt and held together with tightly woven branches. He also fashions a door that can be secured and an enclosed shelf high off the ground on which to store his food. Having learned his lesson, Brian takes his time and does the job right; he works for three full days before the shelter is rebuilt to his satisfaction.
When his reinforced dwelling is finished, Brian turns his attention to another problem—although he now has a place to store food, he has no food to store. The berries will soon be gone, and he worries about what he will do if he is ever...
(The entire section is 561 words.)
Chapter 15 Summary
Although Brian keeps track of the time that has passed since the crash by making a mark each day on a stone near his shelter door, in reality he measures time in the wilderness by events, keeping a sort of mental journal. One of the pivotal happenings during his lonely sojourn is the “Day of First Meat.”
Fish are plentiful in the lake, and Brian is able to catch as much as he needs, but he craves “heavier...deeper food”; he craves meat. He knows that squirrels are plentiful in the area, and he thinks he might be able to catch a rabbit with his spear or an arrow, but the creatures that intrigue him the most are the silly fowl he has named “foolbirds.” These birds are seemingly everywhere, but their color and feathers provide such effective camouflage that Brian finds it impossible to see them until they explode into flight at his feet. Despite this difficulty, he resolves to focus his first hunting attempt on the foolbirds and to stick with it until he catches one.
Brian has gone halfway around the lake and scared up at least twenty birds, but he is still unable to see them until they fly up and away. Taking a break for a moment, he sits at the base of a tree and tries to figure out what he is doing wrong. Perplexed, he gets up and starts to walk again, but he has not taken even two steps before a bird flies up at his feet. It was right next to him while he was thinking about the problem of how to see them!
Brian is chagrined, but this time something about the foolbird catches his eye. As he watches it fly, he notices that it has a distinctive shape, kind of like “a flying pear.” Brian experiences an epiphany as he realizes that instead of looking for the bird’s color, he needs to be searching for its outline; Brian must retrain his eyes to look for shape.
Now that he is conscious of what to look for, Brian begins to perceive things as he has never seen them before. Within moments, he sees three birds before they explode into flight, and he is emboldened to try to bring one down with his arrows. This method is unsuccessful, however, because his arrows, having no feathers, do little more than tumble from the bow. Brian decides to use his spear instead. After many tries, catches his “first meat.”
Taking his prize back to the shelter, Brian discovers that he does not know how to prepare and cook it. At home it had been easy because chickens bought from the store came...
(The entire section is 630 words.)
Chapter 16 Summary
There are many other First Days that mark the time Brian has spent alone in the wilderness. There is First Arrow Day, when he discovers how to make an arrow that flies correctly by attaching feathers, and First Rabbit Day, when he finally catches a rabbit with his bow and arrow. It seems to Brian that he is always hungry, but he is confident now in his ability to get food.
One day Brian brings down a foolbird, and when he goes to the lake to wash his hands, he is attacked for no apparent reason by a huge moose. The moose, a female with no horns, hits him “like a runaway truck,” throwing him into the water and using her head to crush him into the mud. Brian’s eyes and ears are inundated with goo, and he feels as if he might drown. Then the moose leaves as quickly as she had appeared.
Gasping as his head breaks the surface of the water, Brian sees the moose “not ten feet away,” munching on a lilypad root. She seems calm, so he begins to swim to shore, but as soon as he moves she charges him again, slamming him onto his back under the water with her head and front hooves. When she leaves again, Brian makes his way, inch by inch, to the shore. As long as he makes no sudden movements, the moose seems not to mind, so he continues his slow crawl until he is out of the water.
The moose eventually wanders out of sight, and Brian stands up carefully. His ribs and right shoulder hurt badly, but, to his great relief, he finds that he can walk. After retrieving his bow and spear from the water, Brian goes back to his shelter, happy to be alive.
In the middle of the night, Brian is awakened by a low, roaring noise. He sits up painfully and listens, but the sound, though clearly made by the wind, is unlike anything he has ever heard before. Sensing danger, Brian takes his spear and bow from their places on the wall then steps outside to try to figure out what the problem is. He can see nothing.
The sound of the wind is like a train bearing down on him, and Brian recognizes with horror that it is a tornado. As he turns to get back through the shelter door, he is seized by “some mad force” and slammed back inside on his face. The wind rips away the wall he built to enclose his dwelling and scatters everything—“his bed, the fire, his tools”—everywhere. Brian himself is “whipped” around “like a rag,” then hammered into the sand; he claws at the rocks and prays wordlessly to...
(The entire section is 655 words.)
Chapter 17 Summary
Brian gets right to work restoring order after the twin disasters of the moose and the tornado. He must first rebuild his fire, and with his increased skill level, he gets one going in less than an hour. Gathering wood is more difficult because the injuries to his ribs and shoulder force him to move slowly. He manages to collect enough wood to keep the fire going for a day and a night, then he turns his attention to rebuilding his shelter.
Luck is with Brian, and he finds a large piece of his original wall nearby and still intact. He drags it back into place and secures it crudely, planning to improve upon it later. Exhausted now, Brian goes to bed at nightfall; tomorrow he will look for food and reinforce his shelter to “bring things back to sanity.”
As he is falling asleep, Brian remembers the tail of the plane sticking up in the lake. It occurs to him that the survival pack had been stored in that area, and he wonders if he might be able to find and retrieve it. The pack is filled with all kinds of wonderful things that would be useful to him, and Brian knows that if he can only get his hands on it, he will be “rich.”
Although he is anxious to get started on his quest for the survival pack the next morning, Brian knows it is important for him to take some nourishment first. He remakes his spear then catches three small fish, cooks them, and eats. They do not fill him up, but they give him strength, and he is able to begin his project on the plane.
Thinking things through carefully, Brian conjectures that he will need to make a raft and “push-paddle” it to the plane so he will have a “working base.” Serviceable logs are easy to come by, but Brian is stymied when he tries to figure out how to hold them together. Finally, Brian discovers that if he uses logs with limbs sticking out of them, he can weave the limbs together, creating a crude contraption that will serve as a raft.
By late afternoon, Brian sets out to move the raft out to the plane, but he discovers that propelling it is “about like trying to push an aircraft carrier.” At the rate he is going, he will most likely reach the plane at dark, so he turns back and resolves to try again first thing the next morning.
Back at his camp, Brian collects more wood to keep the fire going and cooks three more small fish for dinner. He watches with appreciation as the sun sets, and the unbelievable beauty of...
(The entire section is 670 words.)
Chapter 18 Summary
Brian makes the laborious trek out to the plane two more times but is unable to find a way to get in. Completely frustrated, he slams his fist against the exposed part of the aircraft and is surprised to find that the aluminum covering gives way easily under his blow. Taking his hatchet, he begins to hack through the tail of the plane, but in his excitement he becomes careless and drops the hatchet down into the water.
Enraged at his own stupidity, Brian knows that he must find a way to get his hatchet back. He understands that
without the hatchet he [has] nothing—no fire, no tools, no weapons—he [is] nothing.
Brian makes a series of desperate dives beneath the water, refining his technique and going a little deeper every time. Finally, he hits bottom and, to his great relief, retrieves the hatchet.
Resuming work on the tail of the plane, Brian creates a hole large enough for him to squeeze in, feet first. Although the opening is crossed with “braces and formers and cables...an awful tangled mess,” he manages to “wiggle through” and get inside. Brian lowers himself into the plane, searching with his toes for the cloth or canvas of the survival pack. He returns to the surface to refill his lungs several times. At long last, jammed all the way into the plane against the backs of the seats, he finds what he is looking for.
Taking a deep breath for a final dive, Brian lowers himself down one more time, flipping himself over in the water so he can move head first and pull at the bag with his hands. As the survival pack breaks free and begins to rise toward the surface, Brian catches sight of the light coming through the plane’s window and sees the pilot’s ghastly head.
The pilot’s head is little more than a “cleaned skull” attached loosely to what used to be his body. The fish—the same fish Brian has been eating—have been eating the dead man’s flesh all this time. Brian’s mind “scream[s] in horror,” and he is sick in the water. Gagging and choking, he instinctively pushes himself to the surface and hangs on the tail, “heaving and gasping...fighting to clear the picture of the pilot from his mind.”
At long last, Brian regains his breath. Looking to the shore, he is calmed by the sight of the beautiful landscape. He can tell by the position of the sun that the afternoon is waning, and he knows he still...
(The entire section is 575 words.)
Chapter 19 and Epilogue Summary
In the morning, refreshed by a night of deep, dreamless sleep, Brian examines the contents of the survival pack and finds himself in possession of “unbelievable riches.” There is a soaked sleeping bag, which he hangs out to dry over his shelter roof, and cooking implements, including four pots and two frying pans. A waterproof container holds matches and two butane lighters, and there are fishing implements as well as a cap that says “CESSNA” across the front.
An item that at first puzzles Brian turns out to be .22 survival rifle, which comes in pieces and must be assembled. Brian, who has never shot a gun before, gets a “strange feeling, holding the rifle.” He senses that it somehow gives him an unfair advantage in the order of nature; he no longer has “to know...to be afraid or understand.” By its very presence the rifle changes him, and Brian is not sure he likes the change.
Among the other contents of the survival pack is “a small electronic device completely encased in a plastic bag,” which is labeled “Emergency Transmitter.” Brian fiddles with a small switch on top of the transmitter for a while but can elicit no response. Thinking it is broken, he sets it aside and continues examining the other items in the bag.
The best treasure of all in the survival pack is the food, which is freeze-dried and provided in great quantity. He will ration the windfall to make it last as long as possible, but first he decides to treat himself to a feast, choosing out of the great variety of options “a four-person beef and potato dinner, with orange drink...and something called peach whip for dessert.” Following the directions on the packages, he adds water and sets his new pots to cook over the fire; the delicious smell of the food delights him, and he thinks of home. Brian is so filled with excitement and anticipation for the meal that he does not even notice when a plane appears.
Like before, the drone of the aircraft’s engine does not register in Brian’s mind at first. This time the plane “fairly explode[s] into his life” and lands on its floats on the lake. Stunned, Brian waits, immobile; he does not yet understand that his ordeal is over.
The pilot, who has been alerted to Brian’s presence by the emergency transmitter he inadvertently left on, steers the plane onto the beach and cuts the engine. He gets out of the plane and stares at Brian, marveling:...
(The entire section is 690 words.)