38 pages 1 hour read

Brian's Return

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 1999

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Brian's Return (1999) is a young adult fiction novel and the fourth book in author Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet series. Paulsen draws on his personal experiences from the wilderness to create Brian’s outdoor adventure and survival narrative throughout the series, stating in the author note, “Virtually all that happens to Brian in these books has happened to me at some point in my life” (112). Paulsen was awarded the Newberry Honor in 1988 for Hatchet, the first book in the series. This guide references the 2017 paperback edition.

Plot Summary

At 16 years old, Brian Robeson has had an incredible series of experiences in the Canadian Northwest. Relying on his survival skills and a hatchet that became his most valued possession and tool, Brian survived a fall and winter completely alone in the woods. Now, Brian is back in civilization, living with his divorced mom and trying to adjust to normal teen life.

Brian finds this adjustment seemingly impossible. In the wilderness, he overcame extraordinary challenges by relying only on himself. Now, he must navigate relationships with his high school classmates, but he can’t help but look down on the things they care about: video games, sports, and crushes. None of his classmates have faced the dangerous situations that he has survived. Still, Brian makes an effort to spend time with friends. When he goes to a local pizzeria with friends Haley and Susan, they run into Carl, a jealous bully. Carl attacks Brian, but doesn’t anticipate Brian’s reaction; feeling threatened, Brian’s survival instincts take over and Brian feels as though he is back in the woods, defending himself against a predatory animal. Afterward, Carl is taken to the hospital and Brian is in trouble with the police.

Understanding the extenuating circumstances, the police agree to let Brian go if he sees a psychologist—Caleb Lancaster, an African American man who is blind and a former police officer. Caleb is drawn to Brian’s story. Able to tell that the young man doesn’t have a psychological disorder, Caleb introduces Brian to Shakespeare and hot tea. He is deeply impressed by Brian’s detailed and evocative descriptions of life in the wilderness. Brian and Caleb meet often, and Brian shares more stories of his experiences in nature with Caleb, who proves to be a genuinely interested listener. Eventually, Caleb determines that Brian needs to go back to the wilderness.

Brian convinces his mom to let him return to the woods for the summer despite her misgivings. He prepares, packing thoughtfully, and flies to northern Canada, where he plans to travel by canoe to the camp of the Smallhorn family, whom he met in an earlier novel.

Brian’s journey begins 100 miles away from Williams Lake where the Smallhorns are staying. On his first day in the canoe, a deer unexpectedly leaps out of the woods and onto the vessel. The canoe capsizes, and Brian is once again reminded that living in the woods is unpredictable. He learns this lesson again several days later when a storm hits in the middle of the night. Brian’s tent floods; then, while he is still inside, the wind blows the tent down an embankment. As everything goes flying, an arrow jabs into Brian’s leg and he smashes his head against his canoe, going unconscious.

After recovering, Brian enjoys several days of beautiful natural scenery as he paddles through still ponds lush with a green canopy of trees overhead. He also paddles onto a lake during a particularly still night and sings with a wolf while marveling at the star-filled sky. One day, when Brian must portage his canoe over land between bodies of water, he sees a deer in the perfect position to shoot with his bow. Hesitating, Brian decides to only kill what he can eat or use rather than wastefully killing for sport. He hunts instead for grouse (a type of bird) and takes his time as he moves through the forest. When he returns to his campsite, he finds Billy, a man who lives by himself in the wilderness. Billy reminds Brian of himself, but older and wiser.

Billy expresses his approval of Brian’s choice to refrain from killing the deer. He teaches Brian about medicine, which he considers a spiritual connection to nature, during their short conversation. Just as Billy has found his medicine, Brian must follow and respect his own medicine.

In a climactic scene, Brian unexpectedly runs into a bear—the one animal that still makes him feel like prey rather than a predator. As Brian figures out how to defend himself, and whether he is going to have to kill in order to survive, he draws his bow and stares down the bear in a standoff. It works; the bear wanders away downstream. Brian realizes that in this moment, he is at peace with the woods and with himself.

Brian decides not to go to the Smallhorns after all—at least not yet. Instead, he will continue his journey northward so that he can spend as much time as possible in the wild. He wants to learn everything there is to know about the forest and has a lifetime to spend there.

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