Reviewed by Phil
College friends Wynn and Jack set out to canoe down the Maskwa River in northern Canada. They anticipate days of hard paddling, with challenging rapids, and the occasional portage. But also afternoons spent lazily fishing, or collecting blueberries, and evenings reading by the campfire, or just counting the stars.
Early in their trip, they smell the acrid scent of a distant wildfire. But which way is it moving? And how quickly? Exposed on the river, they push themselves harder, hoping to reach a wider stretch of water where their chances of survival will be greater.
But the fire isn’t the only threat: There are other people on the river, too. There are the two Texans, armed with weapons and whiskey. And a man and woman Wynn and Jack hear arguing in the darkness.
The next morning, a canoe comes downriver towards their camp, a single man at the helm. Is this the man they heard shouting? If so, where is the woman? They head back up the river to look for the woman and find her with a serious head injury, close to death, and with no memory of what happened.
What follows is a gripping story of survival in the wilds of nature. Heller’s love for the wilderness comes through in his vivid descriptions of the river. His depiction of water, of current and flow, is masterful, putting you right there with Wynn and Jack as they guide their canoe down the river. With a few, deftly-chosen words he summons up the splash of sun on water at a certain time of day, the tug of a fish at the end of the line, and the power and awe of nature. The River, both a thriller and a wonderful meditation on the natural environment, is a very satisfying read.
Peter Heller lives in Denver. He was born and raised in New York, but attended high school in Vermont. While a student at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, he became a whitewater kayaker, and subsequently travelled the world kayaking and writing about his experiences. The River is his fourth novel. His debut novel, The Dog Stars (2012), was an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of the Year.