The River by Peter Heller took me back to my teen years when my brother and his best friend, if they had more money, could have easily been Jack and Wynn, the young men in this story. This is a tale that runs by as fast as a river current. Jack and Wynn love nothing better than being outdoors, adventuring in a canoe, fishing and hunting and smoking their pipes on a riverbank in front of a fire. They are both very experienced. Jack grew up on a ranch and lived on horseback from a very young age. He learned to accept both hardships and pleasures as normal occurrences. His judgment did not get clouded by adrenaline. Wynn grew up in the more tamed nature of New England in a loving family. He knew how to stay safe when away from civilization, but he did not have to develop the toughness that Jack’s life required.
These two friends, brought together by their interests, have planned to go on a canoe trip up to Hudson Bay. They have carefully collected their supplies and figured out how to stow them in the canoe to keep their craft balanced and to keep their supplies dry. But there are forces afoot on the river that leads to Hudson Bay over which they have no control. There are two other parties on the river. That should not have been a problem, but people are unpredictable, even adventurers do not all have trustworthy characters. Nature becomes a potent adversary in this river equation as these folks all try to outrun a forest fire to make it to Hudson Bay to get a plane out. The one thing Jack and Wynn decided not to bring with them, a sat phone, would have been the most essential tool to have on this expedition. What ensues is one nail-biting situation after another. You may be able to trust your boon companion, but you cannot trust other people and you cannot predict what nature will throw at you. (And, perhaps, you don’t want to be a woman on the river.)
The voice of the narrator, with its Hemingwayesque short ‘illegal’ sentences suits the backwoods adventure and these young men who approach life, if not grammar, with planning and almost reverence for form and well-practiced routines. Frequent literary references show that these boys are more than just hicks. This is a voice I have heard before, but my brain won’t remind me of exactly what author it resembles, perhaps Mark Twain. Poetic descriptions are drawn without effort, never overdone.
“The canoe moved this morning as if greased. North again toward the top of the lake where it became a true river. They let their eyes rove the shore looking for the colors of a tent or tents, the shape of a boat on a beach, but saw only more patches of yellow in the trees and a swath of orange black-eyed Susans on the shore. They watched a skein of geese fly over that end of the lake, just one side of the V, an uneven phalanx that curved and straightened as they flew in constant correction. The distant barks drifted down.” (Pg. 36)
“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.” (Pg. 1160
There is a new book The Guide by Peter Heller which features Jack once again. Can’t wait.