64 pages 2 hours read

Watt Key

Terror at Bottle Creek

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2016

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Summary and Study Guide


Watt Key’s 2016 children’s adventure novel, Terror at Bottle Creek, follows a group of children as they attempt to survive a hurricane that strikes the swamps and rivers of Alabama. This study guide uses the first edition published by Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers in 2016.

Plot Summary

Cort is 13 years old and lives with his father on a riverboat in Alabama, along with his cherished dog, Catfish. His father works as a river guide and his mother separated from him six months ago, moving into town no longer satisfied with a life on the swamps. Cort’s father is still trying to win her back, but Cort is angry with her and does not want to see her again.

The family’s houseboat is moored on the land of the Stovall family: Linda and her two daughters, Liza and Francie. Liza is in Cort’s class at school and Cort is starting to realize he has a crush on her, although he is worried because they have been friends since they were children and he does not want to make things difficult between them. He is also concerned that, like his mother, Liza would not be interested in someone who lives and works on the river.

Cort and his father plan to stay with the Stovalls in their brick house during the hurricane. They spend the day preparing, moving their belongings out of the houseboat and setting up a generator and other supplies. At the last minute, Cort’s father goes to check on his mother; when he does not return, Mrs. Stovall goes to collect him. The two adults are then stranded at Cort’s mother’s house when the floods rise, and the children are left to fend for themselves.

Cort initially copes with this without difficulty, but when Francie gets tangled in Catfish’s leash and dragged into the storm, Cort must engage in a struggle for survival that tests the knowledge he has learned from his father in their years on the river. He is angry with his father for putting him in this position and determined to keep the girls safe. Catfish pulls Francie onto the houseboat, but before Cort can get to them, the boat is pulled free from its moorings by the rising flood water and carried downriver. He and Liza manage to reach them in a smaller boat, but when this boat is destroyed and the houseboat begins to tilt dangerously, they must jump out into the swamp, leaving Catfish behind to fend for himself.

Cort knows that their only hope for survival is to reach higher ground. They head for the Bottle Creek Indian Mounds, battling dangerous conditions and treacherous weather. However, the mound itself is not safe: It takes them above the rising water, but it is full of dangerous animals who are also fleeing the storm. Alligators patrol the banks and a huge hog attacks them, goring Cort’s leg. They take shelter in a tree, but other animals have the same idea, with a bear climbing a neighboring tree and countless venomous snakes gathering around them in the branches.

The children spend the night in the tree, but after Liza is bitten by a snake, Cort knows that he must go for help. At great risk, he manages to get past the snakes, the bear, the hog, and numerous alligators; when he finally gets to the river, he finds it far too vast and fast-flowing for him to cross. In despair and exhaustion, he almost gives up, knowing he has done all he can. He is surprised to find he is no longer angry with his mother, his experiences giving him a new sense of perspective. As he drifts away, his father finds him in his boat and they go to rescue the girls.

When they get to the mound, the hog is still guarding the tree, but Cort’s father manages to lasso him and hold him while Cort runs ashore. He finds the girls sick but alive and gets them out of the tree. However, before he can get them to the boat, the hog breaks free and charges them. At the last minute, the bear from the neighboring tree attacks the hog and the children escape.

The children are taken to the hospital and make a full recovery. Cort manages to resolve his anger with his father, who promises to be more present and put his son first. Liza returns from the hospital and confesses that Cort makes her feel safe; Cort asks her to the fall dance and she accepts. Cort rediscovers his happiness and his pride for his life on the river.  

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