Summary and book reviews of The River by Peter Heller

The River

by Peter Heller

The River by Peter Heller X
The River by Peter Heller
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2019, 272 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2020, 272 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Adrienne Pisch
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About this Book

Book Summary

From the best-selling author of The Dog Stars, the story of two college students on a wilderness canoe trip - a gripping tale of a friendship tested by fire, white water, and violence.

Wynn and Jack have been best friends since freshman orientation, bonded by their shared love of mountains, books, and fishing. Wynn is a gentle giant, a Vermont kid never happier than when his feet are in the water. Jack is more rugged, raised on a ranch in Colorado where sleeping under the stars and cooking on a fire came as naturally to him as breathing. When they decide to canoe the Maskwa River in northern Canada, they anticipate long days of leisurely paddling and picking blueberries, and nights of stargazing and reading paperback Westerns. But a wildfire making its way across the forest adds unexpected urgency to the journey. When they hear a man and woman arguing on the fog-shrouded riverbank and decide to warn them about the fire, their search for the pair turns up nothing and no one. But: The next day a man appears on the river, paddling alone. Is this the man they heard? And, if he is, where is the woman?

From this charged beginning, master storyteller Peter Heller unspools a headlong, heart-pounding story of desperate wilderness survival.

Prologue

They had been smelling smoke for two days.

At first they thought it was another campfire and that sur­prised them because they had not heard the engine of a plane and they had been traveling the string of long lakes for days and had not seen sign of another person or even the distant movement of another canoe. The only tracks in the mud of the portages were wolf and moose, otter, bear.

The winds were west and north and they were moving north so if it was another party they were ahead of them. It per­plexed them because they were smelling smoke not only in early morning and at night, but would catch themselves at odd hours lifting their noses like coyotes, nostrils flaring.

And then one evening they pulled up on a wooded island and they made camp and fried a meal of lake trout on a driftwood fire and watched the sun sink into the spruce on the far shore. Late August, a clear night becoming cold. There was no aurora borealis, just the dense sparks of the stars blown ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Explore the early days of Jack and Wynn's friendship. What brought them together? What does each young man admire about the other?
  2. Examine Jack's mother's death. How old was he when she died, and how does he understand his own role in her death? To what extent has he processed his grief? How does our knowledge of this part of Jack's history deepen our understanding of his character?
  3. Discuss Jack's sole trip back to the Encampment. How many years had passed since his mother had died there? How did he spend his time on this visit? Why do you think he chose not to tell his father?
  4. Consider Jack and Wynn's decision to go back up the river to look for Maia. Whose initial idea is it, and why is the choice ultimately made in spite of what ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The River offers both a literal and figurative journey; it is a thrilling and contemplative page-turner with sharp insight into the human condition. Heller's pace rushes the reader along, parallel to how Jack and Wynn are rushed down the river. The novel is excellent and comes to a moving, emotionally-charged conclusion...continued

Full Review (569 words).

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(Reviewed by Adrienne Pisch).

Media Reviews

New York Journal of Books
Peter Heller’s new novel, The River, following his bestselling The Dog Stars, is another superbly crafted adventure-action-mystery story. What begins as a late summer lark—a canoe trip through northern Canada ending at the Hudson Bay—is transformed brilliantly into a harrowing adventure for two college students.

New York Times
The real delight is the nature writing...Heller has an extraordinary facility for describing topography and vegetation; we can feel the sharpness of the rocks and the trilling excitement of the river as it approaches rapids. He brilliantly describes the physical process of wild living...There is a tendency toward status-flagging in this novel...This social positioning tempers the peril a little...But none of that really affects the utter joy contained in this book, which is a suspenseful tale told with glorious drama and lyrical flair.

Publishers Weekly
Suspenseful… With its evocative descriptions of nature's splendor and brutality, Heller's novel beautifully depicts the powers that can drive humans apart - and those that compel them to return repeatedly to one another.

Booklist
Heller once again chronicles life-or-death adventure with empathy for the natural world and the characters who people it. He writes most mightily of the boys' friendship and their beloved, uncompromising wilderness, depicting those layers of life that lie far beyond what is more commonly seen.

Library Journal
Starred Review. Using an artist's eye to describe Jack and Wynn's wilderness world, Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist Heller has transformed his own outdoor experiences into a heart-pounding adventure that's hard to put down.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. An exhilarating tale delivered with the pace of a thriller and the wisdom of a grizzled nature guide.

Reader Reviews

RobertaW

Good adventure story
Best friends Jack and Wynn embark on a river trip which should be idyllic but is not. We know from the first sentence that there is a fire up the river. As they are traveling in their canoe, they meet a pair of Texans who are camping out and who seem...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Forest Fire Survival

Wildfire in Washington state 2017The River sets college students Jack and Wynn in a race against a forest fire as they canoe down the Maskwa River to the Hudson Bay with little chance of rescue. In recent years there has been an uptick in the number, severity and duration of forest fires, likely due to climate change (See Escalating Wildfires in the Western U.S.), so it is more important than ever to be aware of safety protocols.

Four out of five wildfires are started by humans, whether through tossing a cigarette out a car window, downed power lines, arson or not properly dousing a campfire. Natural ignition occurs most frequently because of lightning strikes. There are three elements a wildfire requires: heat, oxygen and fuel; this means that drought and warm weather ...

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