35 pages 1 hour read

Gary Paulsen

The River

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 1991

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Summary and Study Guide


The River by Gary Paulsen was published in 1991 as a sequel to Paulsen’s first story about Brian’s survival in the woods, Hatchet (1987). Paulsen wrote this young adult adventure novel in response to letters from fans asking to know what happened to Brian after his rescue in Hatchet. Later, Paulsen wrote more stories about Brian including Brian’s Winter (1996), Brian’s Return (1999), and Brian’s Hunt (2003). Paulsen drew from his own experiences in creating Brian’s survival in the woods, and he uses The River to pique young readers’ interest in nature. This guide refers to the Ember 2012 edition.

Plot Summary

After Brian Robeson’s 54-day survival experience in the Canadian woods, he returns home completely changed. He is no longer a typical teenage boy; he highly values everyday staples such as food and warmth and has a close relationship with his mother. When government psychologist Derek Holtzer comes to Brian’s house and asks him to do it again—survive in the woods—Brian initially believes that Derek is joking. However, Brian gradually realizes how much his survival skills, both mental and physical, could help others in an emergency survival situation, and he agrees to take Derek into the woods to show him how he survived the first time.

When Derek and Brian arrive at the lake, they make the decision to leave all the emergency gear behind. They venture into the woods with one knife each, a radio for emergencies, and Derek’s notebook and map. The first night brings hardships, such as mosquitoes and a rainstorm, but over the next few days, the men find shelter, food, and a fire stone. By their third day in the woods, they have extra food and wood, and comfortable pine beds. However, things don’t stay comfortable for long.

Disaster strikes when Derek is struck by lightning and the radio burned beyond repair. Derek is in a coma, and Brian knows he must get him to safety before he dies from dehydration. Brian boldly makes the choice to build a raft and attempt a run down the river to a trading post marked on the map, in hopes that help will be available there. On the river, Brian faces the full force of nature’s power and struggles against fatigue, hunger, hallucinations, and fear. Through a combination of luck and Brian’s levelheaded decisions, he and Derek successfully reach the trading post and are rescued. 

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