Old Favorites: Deathwatch

Happy April Vacation! I don’t know why, but this week put my mind in “survival” mode.  Maybe it’s the rain?  Anyway, here’s a book that I’ve loved (if you can love a pretty frightening, tense book with a fairly horrific theme) since I first read it in seventh grade. Deathwatch, by Robb White.

* * *

College student Ben lives in the Mojave Desert with his uncle. Ben is studying geology, but also doing odd jobs between semesters to help pay for his tuition. Because of all of his rock-hunting in the Mojave, he knows the desert very well.

When a big city lawyer named Madec gets a rarely-issued permit to hunt bighorn sheep, he offers Ben money to guide him. At first Ben really doesn’t want to do it, but the amount Madec is willing to spend will pay for most of Ben’s remaining tuition, so he finally agrees. He loads up his battered old jeep with a few supplies, and he and Madec head out into the desert.

Madec is an odd man though: he’s very cold, he always has to be right, and the only time he shows any signs of enjoyment is when he talks about either cheating people or killing animals.  Ben is already regretting bringing the man into the desert. When he sees Madec shoot at a bighorn and seemingly miss that sheep and hit something smaller behind it, he’s disgusted at the way the man lies about the shot even happening.  But when Ben goes to check on the wounded animal he thought he saw fall, he finds a man. An old prospector that Madec obviously shot and killed, and then lied about.

Was it on purpose, or was it an accident? Ben doesn’t get a chance to find out. Because when he tells Madec they’ll have to take the old man’s body into town and tell everyone what happened, Madec turns the gun on him. He gives Ben a choice: be killed where he stands, or let Madec hunt him. Ben decides that the hunt is his only chance. But the odds are even more stacked against him when Madec makes Ben strip, to make sure he has absolutely nothing to help him survive.

Suddenly, with only an hour’s head start, Ben is the prey being hunted through the desert. Ben knows the Mojave,  but he’s without supplies, equipment or even clothing. Can he outwit Madec and make the forty-five mile trip back to town, on bare feet, through some of the harshest conditions known to man?

* * *

Deathwatch is a very tense and readable book.  First published in 1972, it won the Edgar Award that year for the best Juvenile Mystery. Ben’s story will keep you on the edge of your seat, trying to will him into succeeding against Madec.

Fans of Gary Paulsen will enjoy this slightly older survival story. Although Ben is a college student, this book is intended for upper middle school readers. If you’re a fifth or sixth grader who could take the tension and suspense (and the very creepy situation of being hunted) you should also enjoy (if that’s the right word)  Deathwatch.

And if you want any other book suggestions–for survival, mysteries or any other genre– during the vacation week, just ask our staff!


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