50 pages • 1 hour readJ. L. Esplin
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J.L. Esplin’s 96 Miles is a middle-grade novel that follows two brothers, John and Stewart, as they navigate a long-lasting power outage while their dad is absent. Their father made sure his boys were prepared for such a crisis, but when the unexpected happens, John and Stewart must dig deep for resilience and learn to rely on each other to survive. 96 Miles was published in 2020 and received the honor of Junior Library Guild Gold Standard. It also won the Whitney Award for best debut novel. This guide refers to the 2021 print edition.
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Brothers Stewart (Stew) and John gather water from the toilet, something they never thought they would be desperate enough to do. The boys, ages eleven and thirteen, are preparing to walk 96 miles across the Nevada desert to Brighton Ranch, the home of a family friend, which is stocked with food and supplies. They are on day 21 of a power outage, and their dad is out of town. Their father is a strong advocate of self-reliance. Due to the family’s remote, off-the-grid lifestyle, he had a generator and sixth-month supply of food and water. However, all of the supplies were stolen two days earlier.
While filling the canteen with toilet water, a brother and sister, Will and Cleverly, enter the abandoned house in which John and Stew are scavenging for supplies. Upon hearing that Will and Cleverly are looking for John and Stew’s father, Jim Lockwood, the boys know they cannot leave Will and Cleverly behind.
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Jim was supposed to be back in three days, but he still hasn’t returned; the power outage is widespread and affecting his ability to get home. As the four kids begin the journey to Brighton Ranch, their task of walking 96 miles with only a small supply of food and water seems impossible and foolhardy. However, John feels it’s their only option. Stewart, who is usually brimming will spunk and survival knowledge, is not himself. He is clearly upset with John for making all of the decisions; to get John’s attention, he stages a “water rebellion” by guzzling an entire day’s ration of water (63). After this, John agrees to take the 16-mile detour to a reservoir when the time comes to refill their water supply.
A truck comes down the highway and stops momentarily, stealing their empty canteen. John sees a gas can with his dad’s “L” for Lockwood stamp in the truck bed and knows this is one of the men that stole their food and water. John flashes back to being robbed at gunpoint a few nights earlier: A man named Clayton Presley came to the door of the house early in the day.
In hindsight, John knows he was scouting out the place—making sure the boys were alone and that the supplies Jim Lockwood was rumored to have were indeed there. Clayton returned later that night with a posse of men. Presley held a gun to John’s head while his friends stole everything they had—six 55-gallon water tanks, food, and the generator. After that night, Stew changed; he became withdrawn and depressed.
After the robbery, John decided that he and Stew’s best chance at survival was to make it to Brighton Ranch. Stew, on the other hand, doubts they can survive the long journey. John pushes his brother every step of the way. After walking twenty-one miles the first day, they stop to camp for the night. Once Will and Stew fall asleep, John and Cleverly sneak away to take the trail to the reservoir. They decide this is the best plan to save Will and Stew the energy of walking. John and Cleverly can drink their fill of water and bring back full canteens for Stew and Will. Even so, John knows Stew will be angry when he finds out John didn’t include him in the plan.
When Cleverly and John reach the reservoir, they go their separate ways to bathe. John sees campsites in the distance and recognizes the truck that passed them on the highway, as well as Clayton Presley’s truck. The men who robbed him and Stew are here. When John meets up with Cleverly, they hatch a plan to steal a truck. They slash the tires of all the other vehicles. John deviates from the plan when he sees Clayton Presley staring into the campfire. John decides to take water from the tanks that were stolen from him, and Cleverly must create a diversion to save John from getting caught. John finally remembers their plan and hotwires a truck. They make a getaway, but not before the truck owner punches John. Once on the road, they realize the truck they stole is low on gas.
They return to Will and Stew, and Stew is livid that his brother is making decisions without his input. Just as the car runs out of gas, Will finds the Lockwood gas can in the truck bed; this gives them enough fuel to make it about 25 miles down the road, where they stop for the rest of the night. Stewart wakes John in the morning and admits he drank an entire canteen of water. Moments later, he vomits the precious water. All John can think about is getting his brother to Brighton Ranch, but Cleverly forces him to see reason—Stew can’t keep walking.
John admits that Stew is diabetic and needs insulin to survive. His insulin supply was ruined when the generator was taken and refrigerator lost power. After a few days without insulin, Stew’s body will go into diabetic ketoacidosis, which is fatal. Their friend Jess Brighton, who lives at Brighton Ranch, is also diabetic. Jess has the insulin Stew needs, and John is desperate to get there.
John feels the only option is for Stew to keep going, but Cleverly has a better idea: John will walk to Brighton Ranch while she and Will wait with Stew. John can drive the insulin back to them and pick them up. John eventually agrees. On his 23-mile trek to Brighton Ranch, he pushes himself to run every other mile. He quickly depletes the water supply Cleverly forced him to take, and wakes up in the middle of the night. He must have passed out or fallen asleep. He hurries on to Brighton Ranch, where Nate Brighton, Jess’s older brother, emerges with a rifle. Nate is paranoid and refuses to let John take any of Jess’s insulin. The two boys fight, and the only thing that breaks them up is when the power momentarily flickers back on.
Nate returns to the house and Jess rushes to help John, carrying her diabetes bag, which contains insulin. She asks about Stew’s symptoms, knowing they must hurry to save him. Jess gives John the keys to Nate’s truck; her dad is away, checking on her mom in Las Vegas, and therefore can’t take them. John and Jess take the truck to Stew, Cleverly, and Will. Jess is able to give Stewart the water and insulin his body desperately needs.
John sees Stew returning to his old self, and the two boys mend their relationship. They all pile into the truck and head back to Brighton Ranch, full of hope that the blackout may be over soon. Mr. Lockwood leaves a voice message that he is safe, and on his way home. He is almost to Las Vegas, where Mr. Brighton is waiting to give him a ride. He knows the boys are safe because they have each other.