47 pages 1 hour read

Dusti Bowling

Across The Desert

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2019

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Summary and Study Guide


Dusti Bowling’s Across the Desert is a middle grade adventure novel first published in 2021. A Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection, Across the Desert follows spirited protagonist Jolene, a 12-year-old girl from Phoenix, Arizona, as she attempts to rescue a friend who crashed in an ultralight aircraft and is stranded alone in the desert. The novel features themes such as Personal Growth Through Adversity, The Impact of Technology on Modern Quests, and Believing in Oneself Despite Others’ Doubts.

This guide references the 2021 edition by Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group.

Content Warning: This guide includes discussion of addiction and bullying. It also includes discussion of grief due to the loss of immediate family members (father and sister).

Plot Summary

In Phoenix, Arizona, in a public library on a sweltering summer day, 12-year-old Jolene logs on to livestream website Blipstream for her favorite show, The Desert Aviator. The “aviator” is Addie Earhart, a 12-year-old pilot of an ultralight trike aircraft who livestreams her flights. Jolene, who has no friends at school and experiences bullying from peers, thinks of Addie as a good friend. She is Addie’s only fan and consistent viewer, and they chat through Blipstream’s direct message feature. Addie never reveals her location when she flies, but Jo used land features visible on the livestream to determine that Addie flies near Alamo Lake, 135 miles northwest of Phoenix.

Jo prepares to follow this day’s livestreamed flight with a map she drew of the Alamo Lake region. While she waits for Addie’s show, Jo searches for information regarding her mother’s frequent use of oxycodone, a drug first prescribed for pain after a car accident she and Jo experienced two years before. Jo suspects her mother has an addiction to this opioid narcotic; she finds nothing helpful online.

When the show begins, Addie acknowledges her one viewer—Jo. After a brief time flying without incident, the ultralight’s engine cuts out, and the plane crashes. Jo panics; her emotional reaction causes a librarian to shut the computer down. Jo runs to a fire station, but when she tries to prove her story by viewing Blipstream, the screen is blank and dark. The man on duty wants her parents’ contact information, but Jo fears authorities will come to her house and see her mother’s condition. She sneaks out when he leaves the room.

Back at home, Jo wakes her groggy mother and tries to explain, but her mother is only upset that Jo has an online “friend.” She takes more oxycodone and returns to bed. Out of options, Jo packs a milk jug of water, some paltry snacks, and her mother’s phone, charger, and credit card in a backpack. After leaving a note to her mother, she sets out to rescue Addie herself.

Using her mother’s phone and credit card, Jo successfully buys a bus ticket to Quartzsite, the nearest town with a bus station to Alamo Lake. Waiting for the bus, Jo meets a 17-year-old girl, Marty Peterson, who offers to accompany her since Jo is a minor. Marty’s many questions reveal to Jo how ill-prepared she is for her quest. Jo tells Marty that her mother, preoccupied with a friend’s use of oxycodone, allowed Jo to travel alone; this prompts concern from Marty. Jo eventually tells Marty about Addie and the crash. By the time they arrive in Quartzsite, Marty insists on taking Jo to her grandfather’s mobile home. Marty calls the police in Alamo Lake, but they say they cannot scout the area until the next day. Determined to continue, Jo sneaks out of the mobile home once Marty is sleeping.

Jo takes an electric bicycle from a nearby campground, thinking it will make easy work of the 80-mile trip to Alamo Lake, but the start of her ride is difficult for her. While traveling on the shoulder of the interstate, she has a bad spill and a narrow miss with a semi-truck. When the bike gets a flat tire, Jo walks 12 miles in the dark. Near dawn, she stops in the town of Wenden to sleep on a bench. Marty arrives in her grandfather’s car and persuades Jo to accept a ride to the Flipside Café near Alamo Lake, where Jo intends to hike into the desert to find Addie. Nearing the cafe, the car runs out of gas.

Jo and Marty walk to the Flipside Café. The heat is already a hazard. Jo updates her map based on the café’s wall map of the area. An older woman named Joanie Cash comments on the quality of Jo’s map. Jo recognizes her name from a direct message conversation with Addie; Joanie is the first female commercial pilot and one of Addie’s role models. Joanie flies off from the nearby landing strip.

Marty accompanies Jo into the desert where Jo believes Addie crashed. They pass the mud canyon with no sign of Addie. When Marty announces they must turn back, Jo rages that no one cares. Her outburst rouses Addie, hidden from view nearby. Addie bangs on the metal supports of the ultralight; Jo runs to the noise and finds her.

Addie’s legs are broken, but Jo and Marty manage to extract her from the plane. The cell phone dies when Marty tries to call for emergency responders. The three shelter in an abandoned mine. Addie tells them a better route to take to the café. Marty and Jo build a makeshift stretcher with wheels from the ultralight’s parts, planning to pull Addie out of the desert that night. Despite Marty’s doubts, Jo is confident they can save Addie.

That night, Jo and Marty walk for hours, pulling Addie along the rough desert terrain. They eventually arrive at Flipside Café. Jo calls Addie’s mother after charging the phone. Once Addie is safely off in an ambulance, Marty calls her parents. When the Petersons arrive, Marty takes them aside to explain that she thinks Jo’s mother is addicted to opioids. Mr. and Mrs. Peterson’s older daughter Lucy (Marty’s sister) became addicted to oxycodone after wisdom tooth surgery. Lucy died from trying heroin when she could no longer get oxycodone.

Mrs. Peterson drives Jo home and supports Jo in confronting her mother. Jo insists that her mother accept treatment through Mrs. Peterson’s charity, Lucy’s Hope. While her mother attends treatment, Jo stays with the Petersons. Her outlook improves as she realizes that her future is more hopeful. At an airshow performed by Joanie Cash, Jo is elated to learn that her mother and the Chapmans arranged a flight for Jo with Joanie. Jo’s new perspective from above reminds her that future possibilities are limitless.

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