The River by Peter Heller
When I lived in the Seattle area I’d visit the Seattle Central Library from time to time. On the lower, 4th Avenue entrance, they had tables set up with piles of their “Peak Picks”: selected new titles with popular appeal that the library had bought extra copies of so there could be “No holds. No wait,” as the Peak Picks sticker on the cover indicated.
You can learn more about the SPL Peak Picks program at https://spl.org/peakpicks .
My used copy of The River had one of these stickers on the cover, and it was interesting to think about how the book might have migrated from that very same table all the way to Vermont via the used-book market.
The idea of “No holds. No wait.” is certainly an appealing one for the city dweller, but what about when a series of emergencies arises during an exended canoe trip in the Canadian wilderness with no cell phone? There’s nothing you can do about the holds, the long waits – it’s just part of being out there. That’s the basic premise of The River. It follows the canoe trip of two friends, Jack and Wynn, as they discover something far more dangerous than they’d planned for: the glow of a raging forest fire is visible in the distance and is bearing down on their location.
There are some minor spoilers from this point forward, but they’re general enough that they won’t ruin anything. And there’s nothing past the halfway point or so.
Although a large forest fire could be dangerous enough even to experienced outdoorsmen like Jack and Wynn, human drama also begins to intrude upon their plans as they encounter some unsavory characters while continuing to push onward to escape the flames and smoke that will surely catch up to them if they dawdle. And soon they find themselves with another problem: they find a badly-injured victim of a bear or human attack, and the two men don’t even have enough food for themselves.
What would you do in such a situation, where you have to take care of a badly injured person and yourselves, too, and the possible threat of a dangerous person lurks around every corner? Watching Jack and Wynn try to figure this out is what propels the book forward; nature can be very unforgiving to the naive or unprepared.
This book is truly an adventure story that will appeal to different types of readers: nature lovers will find plenty of description of the plentiful flora and fauna and lakes, while those who like a page-turner will find a story that keeps pressing forward page by page. I haven’t read a book in a very long time that delved this deeply into different aspects of fly-fishing or canoeing or survival skills – in that respect it reminds me a bit of Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, which I read as a kid. Yet Jack and Wynn are individuals with their own backgrounds and personalities, and this comes into play when they are trying to figure out how to survive the dangers they face.
If pressed to give this book a star rating, I’d give it a solid ★★★½ out of 5, verging toward 4. It’s not quite extraordinary enough for me to declare it a modern classic, but for anyone interested in canoe trips or survival stories it’s an enjoyable and well-written read, and it presses forward quickly. Check it out!
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