46 pages 1 hour read

Kate Alice Marshall

I Am Still Alive

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2018

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Summary and Study Guide


Written by Kate Alice Marshall in 2018, I Am Still Alive is a young adult novel in the survival fiction genre. The novel is an important contribution to this niche genre because it features an unlikely protagonist: Jess Cooper, a 16-year-old girl who has a physical disability. By overcoming her grief over the loss of her father and utilizing her courage and ingenuity, Jess finds a way to survive in the harsh Canadian wilderness and take revenge on the men who have murdered her father.

This guide refers to the 2019 Penguin Books paperback edition of the novel.

Content Warning: Both the source text and this guide contain descriptions of violence and murder.

Plot Summary

Jess Cooper writes her story in her diary, beginning with a section that details the weeks before her father’s death and the days afterward. Jess’s mother died in a car accident and Jess was permanently injured, so she has now come to live with her father, believing that he lives in Alaska. She is picked up by her father’s friend, a man named Griff, who flies her out to the middle of the wilderness in northern Canada. Jess warms to Griff quickly but has difficulty accepting the idea of her father reentering her life.

When Jess meets her father, he tries to act as if everything is fine, and she reacts with resentment. Her father’s wolf-dog, Bo, is tense and agitated toward Jess at first, but the two quickly become friends. Jess’s father downplays the disability that makes it difficult for Jess to walk. Jess wants to go back to Alaska with Griff, but he leaves the next morning.

Jess’s father teaches her how to fish and make a fire, but Jess only partially pays attention. Her father also tells her how to avoid wild animals and how to hunt them. He tells Jess that he left the family because he felt a calling to live in the wilderness and could not live a lie with her and her mother anymore. Griff comes back a few days later and gives Jess a backpack, a notebook, and some pens, which she then uses to write her story. Jess asks if she can go home with Griff. This request offends her father, and he refuses to allow it. He tells Jess that if she just waits until summer, they can both leave and have a normal life together.

Jess shoots her first rabbit, and her father explains a bit about the people who are now blackmailing him. (The narrative will later reveal that in his younger days, he unwittingly became involved with and financially indebted to a group of criminals who are now blackmailing him into helping them in exchange for forgiving his debt.) One day, these men (Raph, Daniel, and an unnamed pilot) fly onto the lake and confront Jess’s father about a crate that he has hidden on the land for them. While Jess hides, they make him dig up the crate and then shoot him because he still owes them money. They leave him in the same hole and bury him. Jess watches as her father is murdered. She rushes to the cabin to retrieve her belongings before the men discover that she’s there, and she hides as they burn the cabin, shed, and outhouse.

Jess wakes up the next morning to the remains of the cabin and no other company besides the wolf-dog Bo. She is numb to the loss of her father and goes into survival mode, collecting wood to make a shelter. She takes stock of the few belongings she has and takes a painkiller to relieve the pain in her leg. She finds a large boulder to serve as the base of her shelter, then gathers and cuts logs, tying them together to form a decent shelter. She hugs Bo for warmth and reminds herself that her intelligence is her greatest asset. She creates a plan to look for more tools and other useful items in the cabin’s remains and ends up finding some jars to use for water. Jess also realizes that she can fish for food. She enlists Bo’s help to haul her duffel bag back to her shelter and thinks about how to escape.

Jess wakes to a storm the next day and changes into dry clothes. She prioritizes making a fire and crawls around to collect sticks and logs. Jess makes a fire after just a few attempts and continues building her shelter the next morning. She takes small bites of her few cans of food and collects planks from the ruined outhouse to line her shelter. Jess finds a berry patch but soon realizes that she needs protein, so the next day, she makes a fishing rod and takes the canoe out into the water, but she is unsuccessful in catching anything. She does manage to shoot a squirrel, but it is disgusting and provides little meat. The storm continues.

Jess stops writing about the past and focuses on the present. Her luck changes when she catches a couple of fish and finds her father’s traps, but Jess misses an opportunity to be rescued when a man lands on the lake. Unbeknownst to her, he is not associated with her father’s murderers but is actually one of his friends, so she avoids him instead of enlisting his help. She notices ice forming on the lake and gets hungrier each day. She also has a terrifying experience when her canoe capsizes and she and Bo fall into the frigid lake. This experience teaches Jess to make sure that her canoe is balanced at all times. The same night, her shelter burns down, and Jess accidentally allows the canoe to float into the middle of the lake. She attempts to repair her shelter, but it fails, and she wonders if she will survive at all. Jess thinks back to the last time her father visited when she was little; after he left, she felt a grief unlike anything else. She thinks about what he would say to her now as she considers digging up his grave to find ammunition for her rifle. Jess decides to go ahead with this plan, and the experience proves traumatic as she unearths her father’s decaying body while Bo watches nearby. She manages to find the ammunition as well as a small map leading to a cabin across the lake.

At the same time, Bo fights off a wolf-dog that appears at the top of the hole and stalks Jess. Jess and Bo follow the map around the lake, and when Jess finds her father’s second cabin, she can hardly believe it. The cabin is stocked with enough food to help her survive until she can learn to hunt, and Jess decides to take revenge on Raph and his companions. She makes a plan to kill all three men and escape in their plane. Luckily, Jess finds a sheepskin coat and hat in the shed, which allows her to stay warm as the weather gets colder. Jess devises a way to haul the men’s crate back to her campsite, where she uses bolt cutters to open it and finds two grenades and a sack full of money. She speculates that the men might be terrorists and wonders why her father was involved with them.

Jess goes out hunting with Bo early in the morning. She manages to shoot a large doe, but as she is hauling it across the ice, the wolf-dog appears and attacks both Jess and Bo. Jess stabs it with one of her arrows, causing enough pain to scare it off, but Bo is left with an injured shoulder. Jess hauls the deer carcass to camp and tends to Bo’s wounds. Sometime later, Jess hears the men’s plane approaching and knows the moment has arrived to seek her revenge. She and Bo creep through the forest toward the men and survey the situation. Jess sneaks up to the plane and threatens the pilot, telling him to exit the plane. Her plan initially works, but he soon attacks her, which causes Bo to attack him. Raph shoots at Bo, causing him to fall back, and Jess shoots at the pilot, injuring him badly.

The men tie Jess up and order her to show them where she hid the crate, but Jess fools them into digging a hole for nothing. While one of them takes her for a bathroom break, she hits him with a rock when his back is turned. Jess uses the opportunity to escape and goes back to the cabin, where she finds a badly injured Bo. She grabs one grenade and tells Bo to stay behind, then goes after Raph, but not before watching the wolf-dog attack and kill the pilot. When Raph comes out of the trees, Jess heads for the plane and tries to take off, but Raph grabs her and throws her onto the ice. Jess and Raph struggle until Jess pulls out a grenade and pulls the pin. Raph tries to grab for it, but the grenade flies into the air, and Jess throws herself out of its way. Raph is caught in the blast and falls unconscious, and Jess sits and waits for him to die. She attempts to get back in the plane, but it quickly sinks into the lake. Jess uses Raph’s satellite phone to call for help. When she returns to the cabin, Bo is near death, and although she tries to haul him to the shore, she doesn’t have the strength. She makes the difficult decision to shoot Bo and end his pain, then goes to wait for the rescue team. As Jess flies away from the wilderness, she feels like she is leaving a part of herself behind. Looking back on her experience, Jess sees two versions of her story: one in which she is the hero, and one in which she is a footnote. She finds her old friends, makes new ones, and now lives with a foster family. She feels happy and relieved to have survived, but she still thinks about her wild life and the person she might have been if she stayed.