Thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson sits in a small bush plane, looking out the window into a blurry green wilderness. The only other person is the plane is the pilot, a quiet middle-aged man. The two do not talk over the roar of the plane’s engine.
Brian’s quiet reliance on the pilot demonstrates his unquestioning trust in his own safety; it does not at first occur to him to gain independent control over what happens to him. The blurry green view of the wilderness below also introduces the idea that the natural world is initially abstract to Brian, lacking the meaning that it will gain later on.
Brian is initially excited about the new experience of flying in the plane, but he soon becomes distracted thinking about the circumstances that led to the flight. His thoughts begin with the single word “divorce,” which he reflects on unhappily, remembering the fights and legal battles that his mother and father have been going through. Brian also thinks about something that he has not told anyone, something he knows about his mother that he refers to internally as the “Secret.” Brian begins to cry, hoping that the pilot won’t notice.
The despair of his parents’ divorce overwhelms Brian in this moment, showing his initially simplistic way of dealing with adversity. The divorce, in Brian’s mind, is all bad, a force of destruction without any potential for growth. This passage also introduces Brian’s preoccupation with words, in this case “divorce,” and suggests the power that language will have to shape his reality.
Brian looks over at the pilot and notices how attuned he is to the plane, almost as if he is an extension of the machine. The pilot notices Brian’s attention and tells him about the plane, asking if he’s ever flown in one before. When Brian says that it’s his first time in any kind of plane, the pilot encourages him to take the controls and steer for a few moments. Brian enjoys learning the controls and is surprised to find that steering is easy. The pilot tells Brian that “all of flying is easy. Just takes learning. Like everything else.”
Brian’s conclusion that taking control of the plane is “easy” underscores his immature relationship to the idea of independence. To him, the control seems complete and simple, but this idea is shattered shortly thereafter when the plane crashes. Additionally, the pilot’s words that everything “just takes learning” foreshadows the conclusions that Brian eventually draws about the lessons hidden within adversity.
The pilot turns his attention back to flying, and Brian is again alone with his painful memories of the divorce. Brian reflects that his father doesn’t know what he knows about his mother and reveals that he will now have to live with his father during the summer and his mother during the school year. Brian feels the plane lurch as he is thinking and notices the pilot rubbing his arm, appearing to be in pain. He smells flatulence and assumes that the pilot “must have stomach troubles.”
Brian’s insistent preoccupation with the pain of the divorce again highlights how self-absorbed he is at the novel’s start. Because he cannot see past the despair that this challenge causes him, he fails to notice even the severity of the pilot’s distress and so is unprepared when the situation worsens.
Brian thinks about what it will be like to spend the summer with his father in the Canadian oil fields, where the plane is headed. He reflects that the flight isn’t so bad after all, but notices that the smell in the plane is getting worse, and the pilot looks increasingly unwell. Still distracted, Brian remembers driving to the airport outside New York City with his mother. He recalls that she wanted to talk to him about his feelings about the divorce, but he remained silent. When Brian didn't answer, his mother presented him with a present for his trip, a new hatchet with a belt loop. He felt guilty for hurting his mother, so he attached the hatchet to his belt, even though he thought it looked silly.
Brian continues to withdraw into his own unhappiness, still oblivious to the danger of the pilot’s illness. His memory of his mother introduces the crucial symbol of the hatchet, which plants the seed of his eventual independence even as he remains without personal agency in the moment. Notably, it is his relationship with his mother—a sense of connection—that provides him with the means he will need to take care of himself, hinting at Paulsen’s larger argument about the ties between independence and connection.
Brian realizes that the pilot’s pain is getting worse. The pilot tries to talk, but is in too much pain to communicate clearly. Brian watches as the pilot attempts to radio for help but is then hit by a new wave of pain. Brian realizes that the pilot is having a heart attack and watches helplessly as the pilot thrashes in agony, knocking the plane’s controls as he does so. Brian struggles to comprehend what he is seeing, watching as the pilot falls still. Frozen with horror, Brian slowly realizes that the pilot is either dead or in a coma, leaving him alone in a small plane thousands of feet above the remote northern wilderness.
At the moment of the pilot’s heart attack, Brian’s situation suddenly intensifies from the pain of the divorce to much greater life-or-death stakes. This new danger paralyzes Brian, showing how unprepared he is to handle real adversity. The speed of this change also dispels the illusion of Brian’s sense of “easy” control over the plane on his own, providing an early example of the futility of the idea of independence.