The River // Peter Heller

“They got hot. They paddled hard. Almost thirty miles on a flat-water current was a long way even for them. Because the river slowed and expended itself in unexpected wide coves. From which loons called as they passed – the rising wail that cracked the afternoon with irrepressible longing and seemed to darken the sky. The ululant laughter that followed. Mirthless and sad. And from across the slough or from far downstream the cry that answered.”

Jack and Wynn meet during their freshman orientation at Dartmouth. Brought together by their mutual love of literature and the outdoors, a deep friendship develops. A few years into university, they take a semester off and pursue their dream of taking an extended canoe trip down the Maskwa River in Northern Canada. What begins as a leisurely trip takes on a sense of urgency when they see a wildfire bearing down on them from a distance. Things intensify when they meet two drunk rednecks and try to warn them, and get even worse when they begin to search for a man’s missing wife. Soon their idyllic paddle through the wilderness becomes a painful lesson in the perils of both man and nature.

Full of elegance and foreboding, Peter Heller has written an outstanding novel that’s part love letter, part warning label for the natural world. From pragmatic Jack to the introspective Wynn to mercurial mother nature, the character development is excellent. As the boys move from the calm lake waters to the swift whitewater of the Maskwa River, the pace of the story moves with them. Heller, a former contributing editor to Outdoor magazine and National Outdoor Book Award Winner, is adept at describing the terrifying beauty of the world around us and, for me, it’s where the novel really shines.

“Across the river and downstream, high up, somewhere over where the fire should be there was a pale cloud that drifted and elongated and accordioned into a high curtain of softest light, and as he watched, it spread silently across the northern sky. It pulsed with inner radiance as if alive and then poured itself like a cascade to the horizon and shimmered with green. A pale green cataract of something scintillant that spread across an entire quadrant and sang as it fell with total absence: of sound, of substance, of water or air… It was like a portent–more: a preview–and it was an if every cantlet and breath of the night was filled with song–and silent. It was terrifying and unutterably beautiful.”

As the novel unfolds, it becomes many things: a heart-pounding mystery of a missing woman, a tale two boys taking an adventurous trip downriver, a story of deep friendship in the face of adversity. It’s a wonderfully written story of desperation, of danger, of nature, and of tragedy. It will be one of the best books I read in 2019. Nearly flawless.

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