Updated: Mar 30, 2020
I am drawn to books with a wilderness survival aspect and have been wanting to pick up The River by Peter Heller since it was first published. The premise intrigued me and I had been eyeing it up at the library.
The River by Peter Heller is a story of the strength, tenacity, beauty, and horror of both the wilderness and the human mind. College friends Wynn and Jack embark on an unpretentious canoe trip that quickly turns dangerous as they are faced with an oncoming forest fire. They first bonded during a freshman orientation outdoor outing and discovered that they were both cut from the same cloth. Wynn and Jack approached their canoe trip with the essentials they anticipating needing, but few creature comforts. They were outdoorsman and wanted to experience nature in its most raw form.
The book opens with the encroaching fire. Jack climbs a tree and is able to see how far away the fire is. If they stick to a good schedule, they should be able to get to town in less than two weeks and avoid the danger. As they continue their descent down the river, the voices of a man and woman arguing carry down to them. They debate if they should stop and warn them of the fire, but decide to carry on and stick to their plan. The next evening, a disheveled man comes across their path and tells them his wife has gone missing and he cannot find her. He is hysterical and gives few details as to what happened or where she could potentially be. Jack is skeptical, but Wynn gives him the benefit of the doubt. The two friends decide to back track to where they initially heard the couple arguing and search for her. They end up finding her and their canoe trip turns into a complete survivalist trip. Not only do they have the impending fire to worry about, they now have a man capable of attempting to murder his own wife on their radar and that man knows they found her and could be waiting for his opportunity to do something about it.
The River is beautiful prose that brings out the beauty and horror of nature. Heller's writing style is unique and this book was a different type of read, as it caused me to really slow down and savor every word. Heller uses a lot of imagery in his writing and is very detailed when he describes Wynn and Jack's equipment. Quite a few terms went over my head as I read, because I am not an avid canoer, but I did not feel like you had to completely understand every term to understand the book.
His imagery with nature was almost metaphoric for what was going on in Wynn and Jack's minds. Wynn is the softer, more compassionate friend, while Jack is hardened from tragic experiences that happened in his past. When they trek to help the lost woman, Wynn feels compassion for the man whose wife is missing and in danger, while Jack is skeptical and questions his motives. They are a case of opposites attract, but that plays into the entire story and the end result. The beauty and simplicity of nature clashing with the danger and complexities of the forest fire is metaphorical for the situation that Wynn and Jack find themselves in. The beauty of nature can also hold some horrific things, much like human nature.
I enjoyed The River and thought it compared to my feelings on There There by Tommy Orange, in the sense that it is metaphorical, descriptive writing and thought provoking on deep subject matter. I gave The River by Peter Heller ★★★★ and highly recommend it if you are into wilderness survival books and descriptive writing styles. Heller will become an auto-read author for me. His writing is deep, thought provoking, and makes you self reflect on what you would do if you were in the situation the characters were in.