Wynn and Jack have been best friends ever since they met during freshman orientation at Dartmouth. They’re from different parts of the country: Wynn from Vermont and Jack from a Colorado ranch. But they bonded over their mutual love and deep respect for the outdoors and have taken many trips together. Now, with time off from college, they embark on a wildnerness canoe trip up the Maskwa River in northern Canada. Months in the planning, they are fit and able, and totally prepared, maybe.
A wildfire in the distance has them worried. Still, they keep paddling through the lakes leading to the river, hoping for the best. Once they enter the river, there will be no turning back. When they hear a man and a woman arguing on a nearby island, they decide to warn the couple about the fire. Strangely, when they land, the couple is nowhere to be found.
Later, a man appears, alone, injured and dazed. Is this the man they heard? Where is the woman? Something isn’t right and their careful plans are no good. The only sure thing now is the approaching fire and the swift river current.
I enjoyed listening to this descriptive and atmospheric thriller, read by Mark Deakins. Deakins has a deep voice that enhances the drama and tension of the story. Heller includes the friends’ important backstories which play well into the plot. Wynn, an art major, has an optimistic and trusting nature. Jack is more suspicious and more quick-tempered. But the two have always complemented each other and assume different roles. Neither is ready for what’s ahead, however, and an interesting dynamic develops between them as the tension builds.
I love stories where nature is a dominant force and The River is a good example of this. Heller’s descriptions make it easy to picture the lakes and river and are at times poetic. That makes sense because Heller is also an award-winning nature writer and author of literary nonfiction. (Read more about Heller here.) That said, I thought that the abundance of description bogged down the story a bit. There’s a lot of discussion of gear and different brands, fly fishing lures, and repeated references to filtered squeeze bottles, gathering berries, and wishing they had thought to bring salt. I enjoyed that part at first, but felt it got in the way later.
I always naively think rivers run south but the river they’re on runs north. That got me wanting to picture their route. A little research led me to this link which explains that the Maskwa River of the novel is actually the Winisk River and that Heller based the Cree village of Wapahk on the village of Peawanuck. You can learn more about this here at knopfdoubleday.com.
The River is a fast listen, at just seven hours. I listened to it during my walks and was totally engrossed.
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