46 pages 1 hour read

Peg Kehret

Earthquake Terror

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 1996

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Summary and Study Guide


Written by Peg Kehret and published in 1996, Earthquake Terror is a middle-grade survival novel that follows two siblings—Jonathan and Abby Palmer—as they navigate the aftermath of an earthquake while stranded on an island. Their situation is complicated by Abby’s partial paralysis and the absence of their parents, and the two siblings must learn to fend for themselves as they encounter one problem after another. The story explores themes such as The Power of Nature, Self-Reliance in the Coming-of-Age Journey, and Overcoming Fear and Uncertainty in Survival Situations.

This guide refers to the 2006 paperback edition.

Plot Summary

Twelve-year-old Jonathan Palmer and his family decide to go camping on Magpie Island in California. During the hike to the island’s lake, the trail is flat and short, but the family’s progress is slow due to the disability of Jonathan’s six-year-old sister, Abby, who has partial paralysis of her legs and uses a walker. Jonathan walks ahead of his parents and sister with his dog Moose and soon grows tired of constantly stopping to wait for Abby to catch up. When the family reaches the lake, Mrs. Palmer breaks her ankle and needs medical attention. Jonathan offers to watch Abby while his parents head back down the trail to the car, which is parked at their camper, so they can drive off the island and into town to see a doctor. The Palmers agree that this is the best course of action and leave Abby under Jonathan’s care. Jonathan and Abby play for a while beside the lake before starting the journey back to the camper. Soon after they start walking, an earthquake hits. Huge redwood trees fall around them, and Jonathan and Abby shelter under a fallen tree until the earthquake ends.

Jonathan and Abby are uninjured, but Abby’s walker is broken and unusable, and the trail is completely blocked by fallen trees and branches. Jonathan clears a path for Abby and helps her walk and climb over fallen tree trunks. Their progress is slow, but Jonathan knows that they have plenty of supplies back at their camper and feels that they will be safe there until their parents can rejoin them. When they are within sight of the camper, however, the children discover that it has been crushed by a giant redwood tree. He starts to wonder if his parents made it off Magpie Island before the earthquake hit and devises a plan to find out. He builds a shelter out of trees for Abby and leaves her with Moose while he walks along the road that leads off the island to search for his parents’ car. He can’t find his parents, but when he reaches the bridge to the mainland, he sees that the bridge itself was snapped in half by the earthquake. The Palmers evidently made it off the island, but they won’t be able to drive back to Jonathan and Abby.

When Jonathan returns to Abby, she is napping, and Jonathan has the idea to make a signal so that rescuers will be able to find them from the air. He determines that starting a fire to make a smoke signal is too dangerous due to all the fallen trees. Instead, he returns to the lakeshore with the plan to spell out the word “help” with rocks and debris and make a smoke signal there, away from the trees. When he reaches the lake, however, Jonathan finds that the surface of the lake itself is rising and gradually flooding the forest floor. He reasons that fallen trees from the earthquake have created a natural dam so that water is flowing into the lake but cannot flow out. He realizes that the whole island will eventually be underwater and hurries back to Abby to create a new survival plan.

Abby cannot swim and is afraid of the water, so Jonathan knows that he will need a way to keep her afloat. At first, he tries building a raft with trees, but he has no rope to tie them together. As he is trying to think of another plan, flooding from the lake reaches the ground around his feet. He helps Abby to climb onto a giant tree trunk, but an aftershock from the earthquake knocks them off just as they are reaching the top. He decides they must each float on separate, smaller tree trunks and explains to Abby that the trees will be their boats. He tells her to hold onto her boat and secures Moose on his own log.

The water starts to rise, and their trees start floating and carrying them west. Jonathan realizes that they are being carried by the Tuscan River. Abby is afraid, but Jonathan distracts her by encouraging her to sing, and he is able to keep her calm. The sun sets, and Jonathan and Abby float past the town of Beaverville, where they see several fires burning in the town. They call for help, but no one is near enough to the river to see them. Jonathan knows that the town of Kendra is still ahead and hopes that someone will hear them when they eventually pass it.

Meanwhile, Mr. and Mrs. Palmer are dealing with their own difficulties. The earthquake hit while they were on the road into Beaverville, but fallen trees and the buckled road made it impossible for them to continue driving. After the quake, Mr. Palmer walks for several hours to reach Beaverville and learns that Magpie Island is completely gone, having been covered by water. He asks for rescuers to go looking for his children and is told that the rescuers will not be able to begin their search until the morning light. During the night, he works with a man named Kenny to clear the road and return to Mrs. Palmer, who is still at the car, unable to walk on her broken ankle.

Meanwhile, Jonathan and Abby become separated on their floating logs when Abby gets stuck on an old fishing pier near the shore and lets go of the leash tethering them together. As Jonathan continues to float down the river, he decides to try to swim to shore with Moose. While in the water, Jonathan is knocked unconscious by a tree stump. Moose repeatedly dives down and brings Jonathan to the surface so he can breathe, and Jonathan eventually regains consciousness. He realizes that Moose saved his life, and this motivates him to continue swimming toward shore despite his exhaustion.

Once Abby is separated from Jonathan, she cries for a while, but she eventually realizes that she isn’t too far from shore and can see a cabin along the riverbank. She slides off her log and uses it as a walker in the shallow water until the tree becomes stuck on the bottom. At that point, she faces her fear of the water and crawls the rest of the way to shore and to the cabin. The cabin is locked, and no one answers her knocking, so she crawls to the back to look for a back door but can’t find one. She falls asleep and wakes at dawn to the sound of a helicopter passing by. Because she is behind the cabin, the medics and the pilot in the helicopter can’t see her, and Abby is frustrated that she can’t run into the open to be seen.

The helicopter continues west, and medics spot Moose lying on Jonathan to keep him warm on the shore. They land and rescue Jonathan, who falls asleep before remembering that Abby needs help. He wakes in the hospital several hours later and remembers where Abby is. He gives his father directions over the phone to the place where he and Abby were separated, and a few hours later, Jonathan learns that his sister has been rescued. She is brought into his hospital room, and Mr. and Mrs. Palmer join them soon after. The family is reunited, and everyone is safe.