The River

By Peter Heller, A grounded, intimate story about survival in the wilderness

The River, by Peter Heller, caught my eye pretty much as soon as it came out. I read Heller’s debut novel, The Dog Stars, many years back, and it’s one that I remember fondly. (I’m also rather proud of my instagram photo of it.) It was an unassuming, thoughtful and interesting little novel. Plus, the premise of The River (released March 5) — two guys on a whitewater canoeing trip caught in a forest fire — sounded promising to me, so I was eager to revisit his work.

Sidenote: I also really like the cover of this book. I love its simplicity, the bright contrasting colors, and how it illustrates the chaotic movement of the river. I know it shouldn’t matter, but it totally does. Anyway.

Plot Summary

For the Detailed Plot Summary, click here or scroll all the way down.

Jack and Wynn are best friends from college, bonded by their mutual love for the outdoors. When a forest fire breaks out during a canoeing trip, they’re initially only mildly concerned. However, soon they come across a man whose wife is missing, and the small fire they initially saw has quickly grown into a blaze.

As the fire approaches and the situation gets more complicated, the two friends will find themselves and their friendship tested against nature and forces out of their control.

Book Review: the Stylistic Stuff

Stylistically, my impression of this book is similar to those I had from reading the Dog Stars many years ago. Heller’s prose flows smoothly. He takes his time at parts, but I was always eager to keep reading.

The plot is simple and streamlined, but the characters are complex. A lot of authors dazzle you with huge casts of characters with big personalities and many competing subplots, but Heller eschews all that and focuses on fully developing the specific story he wants to tell.

As for the pacing, there’s a brief interlude in book (basically while the guys aren’t too concerned yet about the fire) before things start to pick up. From there, the action-oriented aspects of the story take hold, pushing the story forward, guided along by Heller’s confident writing. It’s an intense, poetic and absorbing story.

Book Review: the Outdoorsy Stuff

Heller is clearly knowledgeable about the outdoors. The authenticity of The River sets this story apart and heightens its immersive qualities. There are a multitude of technical details (the way the smoke blows or how the currents flow or what food supplies are available, etc.) ingrained in the plot, which adds a distinctive, realistic dimension to his storytelling. The fact that Jack and Wynn’s decision-making is limited by the rules of nature and driven by specialized survivalist expertise legitimizes and raises the stakes of the story.

The (minor) downside is that occasionally, Heller lets his love of the outdoors overtake the story. I got a little lost during some of his many descriptions of survivalist equipment and whatnot. There’s a few lengthy asides detailing things like their different fly-fishing techniques or a few pages dedicated to their lists of supplies and how exactly they packed it — I’m going to confess and say that I skimmed over all of this.

To be honest, I thought these parts borderlined on being a tad overindulgent at times (we get it, Peter, you’re outdoorsy). Still, his knowledgeability is a net positive for the book.

Read it or Skip it?

Slow burning and intense, this book is a proper survivalist story. The River would be a fantastic book for any anyone who is an outdoorsy-type — full of evocative details and with obvious attention to technical accuracy.

That said, I’m not remotely outdoorsy, and I still appreciated it for its well-constructed prose and the straightforward but textured narrative. I think a lot of people could appreciate this absorbing little book, even if you have limited nature knowledge. It’s solid and understated, and I liked it.

People who might not enjoy this: if you’re looking for a madcap-type adventure, a thriller with surprising plot twists, anything that’s fantastical, etc. This is not that type of book. Look elsewhere. This is a very grounded, intimate story about friendship, grief and survival in the wilderness.

If the writing style sounds interesting to you, but you aren’t particularly into the outdoors, The Dog Stars (post-apocalyptic fiction) is also another book of his to look at.

Have you read this or do you think you’d consider reading it? Share our thoughts below! See The River on Amazon.


Detailed Plot Summary (Spoilers)

Prologue

Jack and Wynn are out in the wilderness near the Cree Village of Wapakh and realize there's a small forest fire a ways off. Canoeing down the river, they warn one group of drunks and further down hear a couple arguing heatedly. They are about to warn the couple about the fire, but decide not to interrupt.

Chapters 1 - 4

Jack and Wynn are best friends and classmates from Dartmouth taking some time off to go on a canoe trip and fly fish. Jack is rugged and a wilderness purist, while Wynn is more laidback. They both love books and the outdoors. Wynn has a book that recounts how the villagers once thought Wapakh was haunted, and it resulted in a string of murders.

The smell of smoke gets stronger and they decide to head back up to warn the couple. They get there and camp for the night. Jack occasionally dreams about his mom's death. There was an accident on a horse-riding trip on a rocky trail next to a river.

They climb a tree to check on the fire. It's probably 20 miles out (2 days ago it was 25-30), and now Jack is concerned. It's much larger. Meanwhile, it's been getting colder which means the whitewater will be even harder to navigate. The aren't able to find the couple, but need to move on. They make their way down the river to a waterfall that they need to go around and go fishing.

Chapters 5 - 10

A canoe arrives that's headed (dangerously) toward the falls. The man's able to stop and redirect himself, indicating he has some level skill in canoeing, which is a relief but Jack wonders why it's just him since the canoe really should be operated by two people.

The guys help the man (Pierre) to maneuver the boat onto the shore, and he tells him his wife is missing. He think the boat with the drunks may have took her. Wynn says that they can head backup to look for her. They take a portion of their supplies with them.

They get back to the spot and find the woman, but she's heavily injured. Wynn thinks she was attacked by a bear and walkie-talkies Pierre to let him know they found her, but Jack worries perhaps Pierre is the perpetrator. They clean her up, but she's still only half-conscious. They reset her dislocated shoulder, and take turns keeping watch as they sleep.

When they get back to where they left their stuff, it looks like its been torn apart by a bear, but on closer inspection it looks like maybe a person did it. Jack wonders if Pierre is responsible. At this point they are about 10 days out from the village, without enough food so they go pick berries.

The woman isn't well enough to tell them what happened with Pierre. Jack knows he has a gun so if Pierre is out to get them, he knows the need to go on the offensive if they want to survive. Wynn thinks Jack is being too paranoid about Pierre.

Chapters 11 - 15

They row for a long time before they get to their next portage (a place where they need to stop and carry the boat). When they get there, Jack tells Wynn to stop somewhere else nearby. When Wynn argues with him, Jack points his rifle at him and tells him to just do it. Afterwards, Jack points out where Pierre is. He's lying in wait with his shotgun in his hands. Wynn convinces Jack that they should talk to him, but as they walk over Wynn's foot slips and Pierre gets away.

It'll be dark soon so they need to make camp. In the sky, the Northern Lights are visible and in the morning they fish for food until they are full. However, the smoke is getting thicker now and fishing is time-consuming. They head back down the river and start to see animals in the water (trying to get away from the fire presumably). At this point the fire is too close for them to be camping on the left bank of the river.

Maia finally is more cogent. She tells them she and Pierre are geochemists. They got into a fight over the research they were doing, and she said their marriage was over. He then dislocated her shoulder, but she doesn't remember after that.

Chapters 16 - 22

They end up canoeing in the dark to get away from the fire, which is quickly encroaching. The smoke is thick and embers are flying about in the air. They come to some rapids and are flung from the canoe. Maia's arm is dislocated again, but they need to get to the boat.

They realize they can't outrun the fire but instead need to head into the part that's already burned. The ground is hot and charred, but they fill their shoes with water to keep them from burning. They find a spot to stay but it's too hot to sit, and finally head over to the beachy area to sleep.

In the morning, they head to a creek, but the fish are gone. The berry bushes they were eating from before are all burned away, and their meat had been lost when the canoe flipped. The next time it rains, the water will become contaminated with ash.

After a long stretch of river they see an area that is unburned, and they are able to catch a few fish. Maia tells them that Pierre is unlikely to give up. They weren't getting along, there were professional jealousies, and she has money. If she dies, he inherits.

After resting for a while, the campers (the drunks) they initially warned about the fire (JD and Brent) show up. Jack and Wynn explain why they have Maia with them, and JD and Brent share their food with them. They all fall asleep. Jack wakes up to the sound of JD trying to force himself on Maia. Jack knocks him out and wakes Wynn.

Jack goes to take JD/Brent's boat (which has a motor), but Wynn protests loudly, waking JD. As they rush to get away, JD shoots Wynn. Wynn dies. Jack heads upstream instead of downstream. He hopes Pierre will shoot JD/Brent instead when they head downstream in Jack/Wynn's boat.

Jack worries Maia will die of her injuries as well if he doesn't get to the village soon. He eventually comes across Pierre, who's dead. Jack assumes he was shot by JD or Brent. He's close to the village now, and should arrive soon.

Epilogue

It has been a few months since the trip ended. Jack goes to visit Wynn's family, and to tell them the full story on what happened in the wilderness. Maia did survive. JD/Brent weren't charged for shooting Wynn since they were stealing their boat during a fire. JD claims he was checking on Maia and not molesting her. (Presumably Pierre had shot at JD/Brent so no charges there either.)

Jack has a hard time letting go of Wynn. He tries to set a small canoe figurine that Wynn carved off into the water, but it floats back to him and he takes it with him instead.

See The River on Amazon.