The River


Peter Heller


Fiction / Literature


Date Reviewed:

December 23, 2020

he River is an excellent story. Once I started reading it, I read nothing else (I typically read two or three books simultaneously, advancing a few chapters in a book before picking up another one. If the book doesn't hold my interest, it becomes harder and harder to return to it, and ultimately I may not finish it at all.) The River has two sympathetic characters in a desperate situation, and so I kept turning the pages to see what happened next.

The River is the tale of two best friends: Wynn and Jack, who are on a canoe expedition in the wilds of Canada. A float plane dropped them off in a remote wilderness, they plan to spend a leisurely couple of weeks fishing and camping, slowly paddling north up a river to the Hudson Bay. It is later in the season, frost is possible, so there is almost no one else on the lake. There are a couple of drunk guys camped on an island, but otherwise Wynn and Jack have this huge wilderness all to themselves. They smell smoke, so Jack climbs a tree, and sees in the distance an immense conflagration. An enormous wildfire is headed in their direction, and despite the fact that the two young men are experienced outdoorsmen, neither has a satellite phone (there wouldn't have been a story if they could have simply called a plane to come pick them up, though I did wonder about the pilot that had dropped them off. Surely the pilot must have heard of the giant blaze and realized that he had left customers on the lake, why not fly over and do a check?)

If I were in the situation that Jack and Wynn found themselves, I would have immediately packed up the canoe and made a beeline for the river, knowing that safety only lay at the village at the mouth of the river. But Jack and Wynn go fishing, which puzzled me. Why not assume the worse, that the fire might be fast moving and arrive soon? I would have paddled from daybreak until dark, getting as many miles as possible as quickly as possible.

Jack and Wynn are paddling across Blueberry Lake in dense fog, when they can hear voices carrying across the water. It sounds like a man and a woman in a bitter argument. Later, when the fog has cleared, rather than starting their sprint to safety, the two decide that they should go back and warn the angry couple about the oncoming firestorm. But when they reach the point where they thought they heard the voices, there is no sign of any camp or canoe, no one is to be seen. They end up camping nearby, and another precious day is lost. This is one way Heller ratchets up suspense in this novel, time slides away and the reader knows the blaze is sweeping closer.

Overall, this is a great read, it is the second Heller book (after The Dog Stars) that I have enjoyed. However, I deducted one star because I thought that the story is too short. I felt that the ending was too abrupt. The hard cover edition I read is only 253 pages long. In between each paragraph there is an extra blank line - which annoyed me, it felt like deliberate padding. Take out all of the blank lines, and the story might fill only 230 pages. I have added extra blank lines to this review as tribute to the publishing format of The River. Even though I really liked both the characters of Jack and Wynn, couldn't Heller have made them a little less competent? They are only college-age men, yet they are ultra competent at everything: fishing, canoeing, emergency medical skills, hunting; where does Jack get all this knowledge about monster wildfires? Couldn't Jack and Wynn have been given a couple flaws? Crooked teeth? Acne? An irrational fear of spiders?

I see Heller has published a couple other novels, Celine, The Painter, I should check them out.