The River by Peter Heller. 2019. A.A. Knopff.
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.
Why The River Matters
The friendship presented in The River is what draws me to the possibility of teaching it. Jack and Wynn are not the college boys typically presented in pop culture. Yes, they make a lot of stupid mistakes throughout the course of the novel, and, yes, they can certainly be pretentious about their own smarts and unaware of the privilege that comes through their race, gender, and education (something that would certainly need to be discussed if this text were brought into the classroom). But these boys are sensitive and caring. Their relationship is rooted in an appreciation of literature and a great respect and passion for nature, and they’re not ashamed of expressing their emotions and communicating their care for one another. This type of college friendship is definitely something I’d want to put in the hands of my high school students as an example of true loyalty and Platonic intimacy.
The River is also a great book for examining how the ideals of American Romanticism and the Transcendentalist are still alive in American culture today. Much like Into the Wild by John Krakauer, Heller’s work demonstrates the way the values of individualism and self-reliance linger in contemporary culture (particularly for young men) and how the commitment to these traits can be both valuable and costly. Heller’s language when he describes the natural world is, put quite simply, beautiful, and his imagery has echoes of the sublime found in the work of the Romantics.
The River would likely work as a lit circle pick for older students, but would also work well as a whole-class text with freshmen and sophomores. The story is easy enough to follow and the characters are likable and relatable. There’s a lot of opportunity here to discuss the choices the boys make throughout their adventure. The adventure itself would likely draw in students who don’t see themselves as readers. Heller writes in detail about the boys’ wilderness and survival skills, and the central mystery gives the back half of the book a thriller-like pace. Because the writing is also meticulous and rich, this may be a perfect book for demonstrating that a book can be both fast-paced and addictive, but still have layers of meaning to wrestle with.
My one hesitation about bringing The River into the classroom is that most of our curriculum is already stacked with books by white men. In particular, Transcendentalism is a very masculine philosophy and women’s experiences of self-reliance and the sublimity of the natural world is pretty much entirely excluded from these units. The River itself doesn’t do anything to dispel the idea that the natural world is, primarily, a man’s world as the only major female character is unconscious for much of the plot. I would say that my curriculum would need to be rich in diverse voices before adding Heller into the mix as a contemporary author. If there isn’t space in your curriculum for The River or this isn’t a voice your curriculum is lacking, The River would still be a great book for an independent reading unit or to at least keep in your classroom library so it’s available to put into the right student’s hands.
Themes and Social Issues: Romanticism & Transcendentalism, survival, friendship, guilt & redemption, coming-of-age, human nature & instincts, choice & consequence.
Literary Features: Heller features all of the classic literary conflicts in this novel: man vs. nature, man vs. man, and man vs. himself. This characterization of Jack and Wynn is developed through alternating perspectives. While the book is written in third-person, Heller alternates between omniscient views of Jack and Wynn to fill in their stories and explore their friendship. Heller is also a master of writing about nature. The way he develops his imagery to establish the setting, tone, and foreshadowing provides many passages for close reading.
Pairs Well With: Jack London, American Romanticism & Transcendentalism, Into the Wild, Wild, The Things They Carried
Content Awareness: The characters swear in a way that you would expect for college-age students. There’s some violence off-stage and readers see the brutal results of that in great detail. This may make some readers squeamish, but Heller’s tone is blunt and nothing feels unnecessary or out-of-place.
Grade Level Recommendation: 9th-12th.
Thank you A.A.Knopf for providing me with a free copy of The River in exchange for an honest review.