Be Not Far From Me by Mindy McGinnis is a young adult survival novel. When a rowdy high school party in the forest sends protagonist Ashley Hawkins into an emotional tailspin, she runs into the woods and falls on a hillside. Without any outdoor gear and a severely injured foot, Ashley must figure out how to survive alone in the woods. McGinnis explores themes relating to Nature’s Wildness and The Will to Survive as Ashley experiences her environment and herself in challenging ways.
The novel was published in 2020, and this guide refers to the paperback print edition.
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Ashley Hawkins hikes a portion of the Appalachian Trail in the Smoky Mountains with her friends Meredith and Kavita. They are on their way to a clandestine party to celebrate the beginning of summer vacation and their newfound identities as high school seniors. Ashley, the most experienced hiker out of her group of friends, leads the way to the party site. Once there, drinking and drama ensue. Ashley’s boyfriend, Duke, is present, and his ex-girlfriend Natalie arrives soon after Ashley. Throughout the night, Ashley battles feelings of jealousy while watching Duke and Natalie interact, and, after getting drunk, she decides to leave for her tent earlier than the others. When Ashley gets up to relieve herself during the night, she discovers Duke cheating on her with Natalie. Ashley punches Duke and runs blindly into the woods, battling her anger and hurt. Ashley falls when a boulder crushes her foot and, overtaken by the alcohol, exhaustion, and pain, rolls to her side and sleeps.
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When Ashley wakes the next day, the woods are silent. Ashley can’t see or hear any sign of her friends, and she isn’t sure which way to go to reach their campsite. She walks a short distance but struggles to make progress on her badly injured foot. When it starts to rain, she takes shelter under a tree and creates a makeshift bandage for her foot out of her t-shirt sleeve. The next day, Ashley gets serious about trying to walk. She makes a sling for her foot and finds a walking stick, and she sets the goal of walking two miles in a westerly direction. Upon examining her foot next to a stream, Ashley discovers that it is infected. As she uses her wilderness skills, such as making a shelter and building a fire, she thinks of Davey Beet, the camp counselor and mentor who taught her how to survive in the wilderness. He went missing three years ago in the same woods in which Ashley is lost, and his body was never found.
Ashley wakes the next morning to a possum chewing on her foot, and she realizes that the infection is spreading quickly and part of her foot needs to be amputated. She keeps moving, but walking becomes more of a struggle as her body weakens from hunger. Ashley starts looking for a piece of flint to use to take off the infected part of her foot and finds the perfect piece. She also finds Davey’s beanie up in a tree and starts wearing it. The next day, Ashley discovers an empty camper in the woods being used as a meth lab. Inside, she finds oxycodone, whiskey, and granola bars. She gathers her resolve and creates as clean of an environment as she can before amputating the infected portion of her foot with the flint. She almost passes out from the pain but manages to stay awake to disinfect the wound with whiskey. Entering a strange mental state from pain and the oxycodone, she thinks about the imperfect relationships in her life, such as with Duke and with her mom, who left when she was young.
The next day, Ashley’s foot looks slightly better, and she decides to stay one more day in the meth lab to let her foot heal. As she takes another pain pill, she thinks about the many regrets she has and the ways she hurt people in the past. She yells for her family and friends and for Jesus, and she cries, something she doesn’t usually allow herself to do. The following day, using the dead piece of her foot as bait, Ashley lures a possum, which she kills in front of its young. Even though killing the possum is difficult for her, Ashley knows she needs the strength the possum meat provides. She leaves the meth lab camper behind and continues walking.
When she finds a carving in a tree trunk made by Davey, Ashley thinks about her unrequited feelings for him. She feels herself declining mentally on day 10 of being lost in the woods, but she also finds that she is discovering more about herself. When an intense storm hits, Ashley reaches a breaking point; she runs wildly through the woods on her partial foot and falls down a ridge, where she discovers Davey’s tent. His decomposing body is inside, and Ashley stays in the tent for the night, processing her feelings for Davey. In the morning, she resolves to press on and takes some supplies from among Davey’s things. One factor motivating Ashley to keep going is that she identifies several regrets that she wants to apologize for; she has something to say to each of the people in her life if she makes it back alive.
On day 15 of her time in the woods, Ashley finds an oil well with a ladder attached. From the top of the ladder, she spots electric lines in the distance. This gives her a direction in which to walk, and she reaches the lines later that day. Once there, she sees two utility workers in the distance down a service road and uses the last of her willpower to yell and run toward them. The workers call 911 and drive Ashley to the state route where paramedics are waiting for her. Ashley realizes that she walked out of Tennessee and into Georgia, and she is overwhelmed to know that her ordeal is over.
Ashley is taken to the hospital, where she is reunited with her dad. She feels like a new person inside and out. Ashley’s friends come to visit her, and she makes the decision to break up with Duke. She loses her cross-country scholarship because of her foot injury, but she gains a sponsorship from an outdoors outfitting company after the local paper runs a story about her. She meets with Davey’s parents and tells them about her discovery of Davey’s body. Over the course of the next year, Ashley says the things she needs to say to the people in her life. Her relationships still aren’t perfect, but she has a new appreciation for her friends, family, and home. As the novel ends, Ashley enters the woods to recover Davey’s body.
By Mindy Mcginnis