41 pages 1 hour read

Gary Paulsen

Brian's Hunt

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2003

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Summary and Study Guide


Brian’s Hunt (2003) by Gary Paulsen is the fifth and final book in the middle grade coming-of-age survival series, Brian’s Saga. It is preceded by Hatchet, The River, Brian’s Winter, and Brian’s Return. In Brian’s Hunt, Brian returns to the woods two years after his first wilderness survival experience. Paulsen, an experienced outdoorsman, highlights Brian’s preference for a simple life in nature over the hustle of the civilized world. The novel is praised for its realistic portrayal of wilderness survival and its exploration of ethical questions related to hunting and the impact of human activity on nature. The novel explores themes of Personal Growth Through Experience, Respect for Nature, and The Value of Simplicity. This guide refers to the 2006 Scholastic paperback print edition.

Content Warning: The novel contains descriptions of graphic violence that may be disturbing for younger readers.

Plot Summary

Brian enjoys a few peaceful days after returning to the northern Canadian woods that he loves so much. He is happy to escape from society, where he doesn’t fit in or care for the noise and pursuits of people. It’s been two years since Brian’s initial survival experience when his plane crashed on a lake (the plot of the series’ first novel, Hatchet). He has been back to the woods several times since then, and he reflects on how much he has changed in the last two years. He is now an experienced woodsman who continues to learn from nature. Brian works his way north in his canoe through a series of connected lakes and rivers and plans to eventually stop by the Smallhorns’ island camp. Brian lived with the Smallhorns for three weeks during his first time in the woods. He would like to see them again and hopes to meet their eldest daughter, Susan, who was away from home when he first stayed with the Smallhorns. Susan is Brian’s age, and although he has never met her, he thinks about her often.

One night, Brian is awakened by a whimper coming from a dog on the shore. The dog is badly injured, and is friendly and trusting towards Brian. Brian gives the dog stitches while she sits calmly. It seems like the dog came from a Cree camp, but Brian does not understand how she ended up out in the wilderness. He believes only a bear could have inflicted the wounds the dog has but is uncertain why a bear would attack the domesticated dog.

After hunting and fishing to provide food for the dog and himself, Brian feels an inexplicable need to head north. He paddles north with the dog, stopping only to hunt a deer, and decides to head for the Smallhorns’ camp to see if they know anything about the dog. As he nears their camp on an island in the middle of a lake, Brian senses that something is wrong. He cannot hear any people nearby, nor does he smell smoke from cooking fires. When he docks his canoe and approaches their cabin, his fears are confirmed. A bear has ripped apart the cabin’s interior, and Brian finds David Smallhorns’ mutilated body in a corner of the cabin. Fighting shock and panic, Brian forces himself to look around the camp for David’s wife, Anne, and their three children: Susan and her two young siblings. Brian uses his tracking abilities and attention to detail to find clues about the attack. Drag marks on the ground lead him to Anne’s body, also badly mutilated and partially eaten. He finds three dead dogs in the kennel area and a snapped leash. He realizes the injured dog must have escaped from this leash when the bear attacked.

Brian finds more clues indicating that Susan returned from picking berries in her canoe while the bear was still present on the shore. The bear kept her from coming ashore, and Brian deduces that Susan’s canoe must have been pushed south by the wind. He heads south and finds her. She is cold, exhausted, and scared. He tows her canoe back to the island and she falls asleep during the journey. Once back, he buries David and Anne Smallhorn. He wakes Susan to tell her what happened to her parents, holding her as she weeps for them. They use a short-wave radio to call the authorities. A Canadian Mountie and ranger come by plane to survey the scene and interview Brian. They take Susan to her relatives’ home, where her younger siblings are staying.

When Brian learns that the rangers do not plan to hunt and kill the bear, he resolves to do so himself. He and the dog track the bear and learn its habits, but they soon find that the bear is hunting them. Without warning, the bear crashes through the brush and attacks Brian. The dog defends Brian, biting the bear from behind, which gives Brian enough time to plunge two arrows into the bear’s chest. The bear lunges at Brian again but dies while on top of him. After getting out from under the dead bear, Brian surveys his and the dog’s injuries and finds that they are not life-threatening. He then sets to work building a fire and prepares to process the bear for meat. 

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