The Skeleton Tree

The Skeleton Tree

by Iain Lawrence
The Skeleton Tree

The Skeleton Tree

by Iain Lawrence


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A modern-day adventure and classic in the making, in the vein of The Call of the Wild, Hatchet, and The Cay, by award-winning author Iain Lawrence.
A Junior Library Guild Selection

Less than forty-eight hours after twelve-year-old Chris sets off on a sailing trip down the Alaskan coast with his uncle, their boat sinks. The only survivors are Chris and a boy named Frank, who hates Chris immediately. Chris and Frank have no radio, no flares, no food. Suddenly, they’ve got to forage, fish, and scavenge the shore for supplies. Chris likes the company of a curious, friendly raven more than he likes the prickly Frank. But the boys have to get along if they want to survive.
Because as the days get colder and the salmon migration ends, survival will take more than sheer force of will. Eventually, in the wilderness of Alaska, the boys discover an improbable bond—and the compassion that might truly be the path to rescue.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385733786
Publisher: Random House Children's Books
Publication date: 01/05/2016
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 1,119,875
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)
Lexile: 670L (what's this?)
Age Range: 10 - 12 Years

About the Author

Iain Lawrence grew up moving all over Canada with his family. He worked in logging, fishing, and even as a forest-fire fighter before studying journalism in Vancouver and working at newspapers for ten years. He is the author of fifteen books for young readers, including this one, and has received many accolades, including the Governor General’s Award and the California Young Reader Medal. He lives in the Gulf Islands with his companion, Kristin, and their dog and cat. He invites you to visit him online at

Read an Excerpt


The Last Morning

When I wake in the night, I'm afraid.

I lie staring through blackness, listening for every sound from the forest. I can't see the ceiling or the walls of the cabin. I can't see Frank, and for a moment I'm sure that he's gone. But then, through the dark, comes the fluttery sound of his breathing, and I feel safe to know that he's near.

I used to be scared all the time, and nights were the worst. When the sun went down, I felt like screaming. I'm not the same anymore. I've learned many things about the forest and the sea, and many things about myself. But when I wake in the dark, I'm afraid.

Out in the forest, something is waiting. It's staying as still and silent as I am, both of us listening.

Is it the grizzly bear? I can imagine it standing huge and shaggy right beside the cabin, just the thickness of the wall away. But it might be a wolf. We've heard them singing, every night a little closer. It could be a man. Or it could even be a skeleton. I've heard them stirring in their coffins. These are things from my nightmares, and they loom in my mind in a terrifying cycle.

I always think of the worst things first. But it's probably a squirrel out there. Or a deer that will flee in a moment, crashing through the forest in leaps and bounds. I hope it's my night-black raven, come home at last from his wandering. But I'm afraid to call out. Through the cabin wall, through the stillness of the night, we must feel each other waiting. We're just two creatures in the darkness.

I don't know how much time passes before the window begins to brighten. Maybe it only feels like hours. But long before the sun will rise, the square of plastic starts to shine with a gray light. Shadows of trees appear like etches on a slate. Through the cracks of the cabin walls shine little gleams of gold.

With morning, my fears vanish. And so does that thing in the forest. There's no burst of noise, no thudding feet. I don't hear it leave, but I know it's gone. I have lived long enough in the wilderness that I sense things like that.

Quickly now, the darkness of the cabin dissolves into shadows, and the shadows change as they harden. Mushrooms sprout from the floor and become the stones of the fire circle. A skinny-legged beast morphs into our driftwood table. Monstrous men stand in the corner, then slip into the plastic capes that hang from their pegs.

I see the stack of firewood, the bottles of water, the shoes piled high beneath the table. I guess I went a bit stupid with shoes. I see all the things I've carried from the beach, the stuff Frank calls junk. But to me it's important because it came across the sea from Japan. I like to wonder about those things, to invent their stories.

Near the floor where Frank is sleeping, pale scratches in the wall mark the days that have passed. They're squashed together, blurred into one long smudge just like the days themselves: thirty, forty, fifty of them, and all the same.

Then I remember that this day is different. Today is the day we'll be saved.

It's still early, at least an hour till dawn. But I can't wait that long. I have to go down to the skeleton tree.

I roll out of bed and crouch over Frank. Not long ago I would have been afraid to wake him like this. He would have gotten very angry very fast. But this morning I think he won't mind. I shake him by the shoulder, shouting his name, and his hands swing up to fight me. He springs away with a cry, thumping his back against the cabin wall. His eyes are huge and startled, and when he sees me, he groans. "What's the matter with you?" he asks. "Are you crazy?"

"Today's the day," I tell him.

"Stop shouting," he grumbles.

I can't understand why he isn't excited. Frank's only three years older than me, not even sixteen. But sometimes he seems almost grown up. He scratches his matted hair and squints at the window. "It's not even morning, Chris."

"But they might be landing right now," I tell him. "Don't you want to see that?"

He coughs and shakes his head. "You go ahead. I want to sleep some more. But start the fire first; I'm cold."

Even a month ago it would have made me angry to be told what to do. But now I know it's just Frank's way. I squat by the circle of stones and scrape at the ashes with a small stick. The coals underneath are still warm and glimmering. In their glow I see my breath, a little red cloud like dragon's fire. I arrange a few twigs and a sprig of dry moss, and as I lean forward to blow on the embers, smoke rises into my eyes, making me squint. But flames come quickly. I'm an expert now at starting fires, maybe better than Frank.

I add more wood. The smoke grows thick and ropy, swirling up to the ceiling and out through the hole. I can imagine pictures forming in front of me, images that whirl apart and form again.

My uncle Jack told me once that if you look too long at a fire it will steal your thoughts away. He was right.


The Daredevil

My mother tried to warn me about Uncle Jack. "He's a daredevil," she said. "He can't be happy unless he's facing danger."

But I loved my uncle. He raced motorcycles; he jumped out of airplanes; he fought forest fires for a living. My father was an accountant who drove a brown minivan and worked in an office. It was no wonder that Uncle Jack was my hero when I was small.

He went away on long adventures, sometimes for months at a time. When my father died and Uncle Jack turned up for the funeral, I hardly recognized him. He stayed only three days, then vanished again. He bought a boat and set off to sail around the world.

It was almost exactly a year later when he came back into my life. My mother answered the phone and there he was, talking from the dock in Kodiak, Alaska.

They had a long conversation that she made sure I couldn't hear. She turned her back and whispered strange things in a strange voice, all beginning, "Oh, Jack."

"Oh, Jack, do you think that's a good idea?"

"Oh, Jack, Christopher doesn't know about any of that."

"Oh, Jack, I'm just not sure it's the right thing for him now."

When she hung up the phone she was red and flustered.

"What don't I know about, Mom?" I asked.

She stared at me. "Well, sailing," she said. "For starters. Jack wants you to fly up to Kodiak and sail home on the boat."

I wasn't sure what to say, or even what I felt. I hardly knew my uncle anymore, and I had never been on a sailboat.

"You realize you'd have to miss nearly a month of school," said Mom, and suddenly sailing with Uncle Jack seemed like a great idea. I begged her to let me go.

"It might be a learning opportunity," I told her.

"No doubt," said Mom, with a little snort. "I'm just not sure I want you learning what Jack would teach you."

She stood at the bookshelves, where a jumble of pictures showed my father as a boy. In one he was peering up through the poles of a lean-to. In another he was holding a fishing rod and a huge salmon. But my mother picked up the only one of my dad and Uncle Jack together. They looked almost like opposites, one short and dark, the other tall and fair, one thin and one muscled. They sat on the back of a horse that had no saddle, Uncle Jack in front, my father behind him, peering around his shoulder. They wore nothing but shorts, and little war bonnets made of cardboard, with painted feathers that stuck straight up. They were suntanned and smiling, and my father looked really happy in a way that I could sort of remember.

"Oh, I don't know what's best," said Mom. "Maybe a bit of adventure is what you need right now. But you have to be careful of men who love danger. Even Jack."

She dusted the picture with her sleeve, then put it back in its place and sighed. "All right, you can go," she said. "I just hope I won't live to regret it."

Less than a week later I was on an airplane flying up the coast. Around my neck hung a sign that said Unaccompanied Minor. It was a month after my twelfth birthday, but the flight attendants—like almost everyone else—thought I was more like nine or ten. They made a big fuss over me because I was a little kid traveling by myself. They talked in that embarrassing way that grown-ups use for children, with phony voices and phony smiles.

All the way north I stared through the window at endless rows of mountains. Although it was nearly the middle of August, vast fields of snow gleamed in the sunshine. I imagined I could see a thousand square miles at once, but not a single house, not a road, not a sign of people anywhere.

I pictured the plane making an emergency landing on a glacier, and me crawling from the wreckage to find that I was the only survivor. I could see myself standing on one of those mountaintops, screaming for help, with no one to hear me.

We arrived in Kodiak five hours late, after the sun had set. A flight attendant took my hand and walked me through the terminal as though I was a little boy. Uncle Jack laughed when he saw me. He tore off the sign and flung it like a Frisbee toward a garbage can. "You don't need that nonsense anymore," he said.

We took a taxi to the dock, where Uncle Jack had parked his boat. It was called Puff, and it looked too small to have gone all the way around the world. Tiny portholes glowed with yellow light from the cabin. When Uncle Jack pushed open the hatch and led me down a steep ladder, I was surprised to see a kid sprawled along a bench.

He was older than me by two or three years. His arms were long and tanned, and his black hair hung over his eyes. Uncle Jack put his hands on my shoulders and told the kid, "Say hello to Chrissy."

I wished he hadn't used that dorky name from my childhood. By the little flicker that came into the kid's eyes I knew he'd tease me about it later.

The boy heaved himself up from the table. Thinking he meant to shake hands, I reached shyly toward him. But he only tossed his head to flick the hair from his eyes and told Uncle Jack, "I'm going to bed."

"Don't you want to stay up for a while?" asked Uncle Jack. "Have a gam, as the whalers used to say?"

"No," said the kid. He pushed past me and slouched away.

"Hey, Frank, come on," said Uncle Jack, disappointed. But the kid kept going, through a narrow door at the front of the boat.

We watched him go. Then Uncle Jack sort of laughed and said, "That's Franklin."

Franklin? I nearly laughed. It was an old-fashioned name that didn't suit the kid at all. The only Franklin I'd ever known was my grandfather, a human prune named after President Roosevelt.

"Who is he?" I asked.

"Well, that's a long story," said Uncle Jack. "And it's a little late tonight. So let's wait till tomorrow, till we're under way, and you can both hear it."

"He's coming with us?" I asked.

Uncle Jack started nodding, then kept going like a bobblehead doll. "Yeah. I guess he is."

We spent the night at the dock. At first I felt awkward being around Uncle Jack again. But he was very kind. He showed me all the things he'd collected on his voyage, then talked about my dad. He told funny stories I'd never heard before, and he said how much he missed my dad, and that he could only imagine how hard it was for me.

"Your father loved you more than he loved the whole world," said Uncle Jack. "I hope you know that."

I slept on a narrow bed that Uncle Jack called his sea berth. And I woke early, to hear seagulls crying outside. But Franklin didn't get out of bed until Uncle Jack went in three times to wake him. Then he dragged himself around without saying a word. He kept flicking his hair out of his eyes, as though hair flicking was his favorite hobby. He never smiled or anything. He was the sort of kid who looked as though he was always making fun of people inside his head.

He sat down at the table and took out an iPod. Quick as a snake, Uncle Jack snatched it from his hands.

"Give that back!" cried the kid.

Uncle Jack shook his head. "There's no place at sea for gadgets. Believe me, you'll find plenty to keep you interested." He asked if we had other things, and took them all away. He even took the kid's wristwatch because it had a game built into it. "Yours too, Chrissy," he said, waggling his fingers.

"But it's just a watch. See?" I turned my wrist to show him the dial. "It was a present from my dad."

"Yeah, okay," he said. Everything else went into a box that he locked in a drawer. "Now for the tour. Because Frank slept in, we'll have to hurry."

In one quick sweep, Uncle Jack led us through the boat. He showed us how to start the engine, where to find the flares, how to work the little VHF radio if we had to call for help, and he did it all in just a minute or two. Then we trooped up the ladder and out to the deck.

"I'll get us shipshape," said Uncle Jack. "You boys go forward and haul the dinghy aboard."

"Tell him to do it," said the kid.

"I'm telling you both to do it."

The dinghy was a little red boat sitting on the dock. Made of plywood, blunt at both ends, it looked small and worn-out. Lashed to the seats was a pair of stubby oars and a plastic scoop tied to a bit of old string. Frank took one end and I took the other. But he pulled too hard and yanked the boat right out of my hands. Flakes of red paint scattered across the planks as it fell on the dock.

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