Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The River by Peter Heller

The prologue of this magnificent adventure story shows the reader that the coming tale will be more than a travelogue of two college kids on a canoe trip. Wynn and Jack have been smelling smoke for two days and they know that they’re approaching a forest fire – “who knew how far off or how big, but bigger than any they could imagine.” The prologue teases the reader with what’s to come via Wynn and Jack’s encounter with “two men and a plastic fifth of Ancient Age bourbon drunk on a summer morning.” In those first few pages, they also glimpse a couple they hear arguing. Through these brief foretastes, Peter Heller, the author of the spectacular Dog Stars and The Painter, offers glimpses of the troubles to come before he helps us know and care for protagonists Jack and Wynn. 

Heller tells us that Jack, who grew up on a Colorado ranch, is grieving the death of his mother then shares how that grief feels. “When Jack got accepted at Dartmouth, his Dad said, ‘Your mother would be over the moon.’ Over the moon. She was over the moon. It was almost exactly how he had been thinking of her these past years. When he walked halfway to the horse barn on a cold night and stood in the frozen yard and watched the moon climb over Sheep Mountain, he sometimes whispered, ‘Hi, Mom.’ He wasn’t quite sure why, it just seemed that if she were to be anywhere it would be there. Maybe it was because his favorite book when he was very little was Goodnight Moon. She had read it to him over and over, and after she drowned he kept the battered copy on the little shelf above the bed and sometimes fingered the worn corners and flipped through it before he slept. And it was books he took solace in. When he wasn’t out on the ranch, or riding the lease, or fishing.”

At Dartmouth, he met Wynn and “He and Wynn had that in common, a literary way of looking at the world. Or at least a love of books, poetry or fiction or expedition accounts.” The two had met on a freshman orientation trip backpacking through the White Mountains. “Jack was startled. He’d never had conversations like this with another kid, and he’d never imagined anyone else his age would love to read as much as he did – especially a guy who seemed to be able to more than handle himself in the woods. They were best friends from that first day, and whatever else they were doing, they never went very long without trading books.”

As the two friends row their way through a Canadian wilderness, Heller presents us with unique, yet earthbound views of the trip. “His fly hit the water and was met with a small splash and tug. A hard tug, and Wynn’s spirit leapt and the rod tip doubled and quivered and he felt the trembling through his hand and arm and, it seemed, straight to his heart, where it surged a strong dose of joy into his bloodstream.”. . . “It was not a long fight and not a huge fish, but it was a fourteen-inch brown—who knew how they had come to live way up here – big enough, the first like him they’d seen, and with a gratitude and quiet joy he did not know he still had, he got the slapping fish up on the rocks and thanked him simply and thwacked him on a smooth stone and the golden trout went still. Phew. Lunch. A few more like that and they’d be set for the day.”

Despite their need to return to civilization quickly, Jack and Wynn turn around to warn the men and the couple about the impending fire and they find Mia, the woman they’d heard previously. She’d been left to die by her husband who now knew that they knew what he’d done so they were all targets with more than the fire to fear. Thus the novel turns from a simple adventure tale to a harrowing page-turner with the reader wondering if anyone will survive.

As they take turns sitting watch at night, each ponders their lives. Jack sits observing Wynn and thinks, “Wynn was an angel in a way. He slept usually as soon as his head hit the pillow or rolled up jacket, he slept easily and hard because, Jack figured, his conscience was clear and he had faith in the essential goodness of the earth and so felt cradled by it.
Imagine. That’s what Jack thought. Imagine feeling that way. Like God had you in the palm of his hand or whatever.”. . . “It sort of awed Jack. Sometimes, usually, it made him crazy.”

The River is part thriller, part adventure tale, and part elegy. The sum of those parts is an extraordinary view of what’s important in life. It’s simply spectacular.

Summing it Up: The River’s exquisite sentences celebrate nature and epitomize the best aspects of true friendship. It’s a thriller. It’s an outdoor lover's dream of an adventure tale. It’s quite simply one great novel. 

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Book Club
Publication date: March 5, 2019
What Others are Saying:
“Using an artist’s eye to describe Jack and Wynn’s wilderness world, Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist Heller has transformed his own outdoor experiences into a heart-pounding adventure that’s hard to put down.” –Library Journal (Starred Review)


  1. I was swept away by this novel. Having had a wilderness canoe trip in the
    the Boundary Watters of Minnesota 50 years ago made it much more personal for me. I'm going to send this book to my three sons. I think that they will love it as much as I did. Giner

  2. So happy you loved it. I agree that your sons will as well.

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