Thursday, May 2, 2019

The River by Peter Heller

I tried reading "The Dog Stars" by Peter Heller a few years back and found it totally inaccessible. Happily, that experience didn't lead me to ban his books from my reading list. Heller's recently released novel "The River" grabbed me from the first page and didn't let go until the final sentence.  I loved it.

The book follows two young men on a month-long canoe trip on the Maskwa River in northern Canada during their summer break from Dartmouth. Despite their young age, they are experienced outdoorsmen who were clearly raised with a great appreciation of and respect for nature. They feel prepared for all contingencies. But when they realize the smoke they'd been smelling for a couple of days belongs to a forest fire instead of another group of campers, their resources are tested. And that's just the beginning of the challenges they face.

Heller combines a heart-racing story with beautiful writing. His own love of and respect for the outdoors shines through on every page. Take, for instance, his description of the boys' reaction to paddling at night.

The Maskwa River
"They loved how the darkness amplified the sounds--the gulp of the dipping paddles, the knock of the wood shaft against the gunwale. The long desolate dry of a loon. The loons especially. How they hollowed out the night with longing."

And while it was sad beyond belief, I marveled at his description of the animals fleeing the fire. The moose. The bear. The mink and squirrels. Heller writes:

"In the late afternoon, Wynn whistled and he [Jack] looked up and saw what must have been a hundred mice.... It was like a miniature herd. They swarmed a steep cut bank and fell or jumped or dipped off it into the water and they swam...

'Looks like Dunkirk,' Jack said."

Which brings me to another point. The kids are smart and excited about their college experience. Periodically they'll mention some art or a poem -- or a dopey professor.

Peter Heller
"Professor Paulson said alliteration can be dangerous if you don't know how to use it," Wynn recalled...

After a minute Jack asked, 'What's the dude's definition of danger anyway? When he said alliteration can be dangerous?'

'Yeah, right?' Wynn [responded]…'It's like when they say this or that writer took a big risk,' he said.  'What are the consequences? He might have to hit delete on his laptop?'

While there's humor in this exchange, the contrast between the "danger" of alliteration and the physical danger confronting Wynn and Jack is just another example of the beauty of Heller's writing. (I have to admit that I didn't appreciate the comparison until this very second! Maybe that's why the passage lingered with my subconscious.)

Heller's "The River" is part wilderness story, part thriller, part contemporary fiction. It's the work of a master writer at the top of his craft that will speak to you no matter what genre is typically on your nightstand. Read it.

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