Ellen’s Pick of the Week: The River by Peter Heller

“The implacability and violence of nature always awed him. That it could be entirely heedless and yet so beautiful. That awed him. But also its intricate intelligence. Its balancings. Its quiet compensations. It was like some unnamed justice permeated everything. He would not go further than that. Still, the workings of nature made the voracious, self-satiating intelligence of humans seem of the lowest order, not the highest.”

Peter Heller, The River

Jack and Wynn had carefully planned their canoe trip into the wilds of northern Canada but they couldn’t have prepared for a raging wildfire or the human drama they encountered along their way. Friends since their freshman year at Dartmouth, the two young men shared a love of the outdoors and western novels by Louis Lamour, but otherwise were quite different. Jack was the short, wiry son of a Colorado rancher and tall and easy-going Wynn’s parents were East coast professionals. 

When they realize that a huge forest fire is bearing down on them, they go back to warn a couple they had heard arguing the day before when they had paddled past. But the couple has gone so they continue their trip, trying to get to their destination before the fire crosses their path. Then the man reappears and is frantic because his wife has gone missing. The boys split up to find her and from this point on, the book races to its stunning conclusion. 

I read The River by Peter Heller in about one day because it’s a short and very compelling story. I confess that I skipped over most of the details about their camping and canoeing equipment, but I’m sure they would appeal to a more outdoorsy reader than I. In addition to Peter Heller’s beautiful writing, what I most loved about this book was the description of the friendship between Jack and Wynn and their deep understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Their powerful  relationship forms the beating heart of this book.

I would highly recommend this book for readers who appreciate beautifully described settings and vividly drawn characters . Readers who enjoy fast-paced thrilling outdoor adventures would also love this book. I read The River right after finishing The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad for my book club, and I was relieved that Heller’s view on human nature is much more optimistic than Conrad’s. This book would also appeal to older teens who love the outdoors. 

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