Seeing as we just returned from an 11 day road trip to Montana and we floated two rivers while we were there, it seems only fitting that this week’s book rec be The River by Peter Heller. I thought of it so many times while we were rolling through Whitefish and Glacier and Missoula, and that’s saying something, because I read the book two years ago. It’s got staying power.
In 1984 David Rains Wallace wrote in The New York Times that nature writing is a more recent literary genre but perhaps the most revolutionary. He likened it to “a woodland stream that sometimes runs out of sight, buried in sand, but overflows into waterfalls further downstream.” Wallace went on to say that while there are many varieties of nature writing — nature reporting, nature poetry, nature fiction, and of course nature essays like those penned by Emerson and Thoreau — they are each defined by their “appreciative esthetic response to a scientific view of nature.” This definition holds true more than 30 years later in The River. It’s a work of fiction but The River could also be a case study in how to write an “appreciative esthetic response” to nature; in this case to the lakes and rivers of northern Canada.
On its face, The River is a tale of two friends paddling down the Maskwa River in Canada (not the Flathead or Missoula Rivers of Montana, unfortunately, but close enough), trying to beat a wildfire that’s tearing through the forest. But in addition to the friendship and the adventure are these brief sections that illuminate the world around the two friends. If one was to study Heller’s hand with nature writing, the key, it seems, is to keep the tread light, the imagery keen, and to make gentle connections to the spirit that animates the scenes of nature.
I’m sure that if I attempted to write an esthetic response to something scientific we saw in Montana, I would probably drum on overly long or resort to tired cliches. But Heller does neither. As Wallace described, his nature writing runs underground, so to speak, as he weaves this tale of adventure and suspense, heroism and tragedy, and then bursts into beautiful waterfalls further downstream.