The River At Night, Erica Ferencik, author, Joy Osmanski, narrator
The novel is told in Wini’s voice, one of the four old friends in their mid to late thirties who are fighting the idea of middle age. In that spirit, they are taking a hiking/white water rafting trip, organized by Pia Zanderlee, perhaps the daredevil of the group, who is long, lean and athletically fit. This is the latest of their yearly trips to bond again and renew their close friendship, a friendship that life has interrupted, at times.
Wini is not eager to go, and Pia is attempting to persuade her. When Sandra and Rachel agree to go, she gives in, not wanting to be the one they left behind, feeling enormous guilt about her ridiculous fears. Each of the women has their own personal reasons for wanting a few days respite from their world. Each has issues, either in their marriage, their job or their personal life. However, except for Pia, the women are really not even physically ready for the difficult hike to the rafting site, let alone the rafting, but Wini is perhaps the least prepared and her severely blistered feet are tended to by Sandra.
Sandra seems to be the most stable and balanced friend of the group. She is recovering from cancer. Her husband, however, is very abusive and controlling. She has a brilliant, but somewhat disabled child, Ethan, who is loved well by his sister Hannah. She protects him, similarly to the way that Wini used to protect her brother, Marcus. Wini is trying to deal with the recent death of Marcus, a developmentally challenged child who used sign language to communicate, a skill which would serve her well on this trip. Wini is also an accomplished swimmer, which will help to save her life when the raft capsizes. Wini’s husband Richard has decided he no longer wishes to be married to her. Rachel is an Emergency Room nurse. Her talents and skill will come in handy as they suffer from many mishaps, but her arrogance and quickness to anger might also place them in danger, at times. She is a recovering alcoholic. Pia is a jock, the part of her personality which hides her true fearful nature. She is hungry for love and is enamored with their much younger guide, Rory Ekhart. He is a handsome, well built, 20 year old college student. He and Pia seem to have similar personalities, each seemingly willing to take risks, even unnecessary ones, sometimes behaving recklessly or thoughtlessly, and they are drawn to each other.
The women are going to have an unexpectedly difficult, nightmare of a trip. In just a few days, as their connection to civilization recedes, they will each be forced to face the fractures in their friendships, the true feelings they have for and about each other, and an assortment of dangers they could never have even imagined. They will be forced to reevaluate their thoughts on what is important in life. Perhaps, the most important idea they will face is just how much they want to go on living.
The author sets up a tense atmosphere with the discovery that Rory has a bit of a checkered past regarding assault and disorderly conduct, and he is also carrying a gun. His father owns a lot of land in the very remote area of Dickey, where they are headed. Some of the locals resent his invasion of their natural environment. They are not friendly. Rory’s dad had carved a path to the Eagle Lake, in this uninhabitable place, to start the rafting/guide business. He has disturbed and contaminated their little piece of G-d’s world. Rory is now supposedly reformed and no longer reckless. He loves the rafting and guide business. As the story develops, the reader’s mind will be reminded of the horrifyingly, scary movie, Deliverance, that those of a certain age will surely remember.
During their developing terrifying experience, when they lose their raft, a friend, and their guide, the surviving members will encounter an odd woman and her son, living in the woods, smelling like feral animals. They live off the land completely. The woman, Simone is very strange, and what they soon discover about her will terrify them. Her son Dean cannot speak. He is in his early twenties and has lived in the woods since the age of 5. Simone said he was born without a tongue, but that story will prove to be a lie. Wini’s ability to use sign language with him enables her to discover the murderous plans Simone has in store for them. She is able to communicate with Dean to try and intervene. How that plays out in the novel will keep the reader on the edge of the seat, up late into the night, in order to discover what happens next.
Each of the four women finally discovers what is really important to them, and each will deal with their own ghosts and losses in different ways, truly affected by what they went through in this recent reunion experience which defied their idea of reality. They had to carefully consider their real desires, the choices and decisions they had made in their lives, their ability to be compassionate and their need for friends and family.
Until the end of the book, I was captivated, listening late into the night, but in the author’s attempt to tie up all the loose ends, I felt that she seemed to get embroiled in too much melodrama and coincidence. I think the author wanted the reader to wonder about what was better, the idea of living in a civilization that was destroying the environment or the idea of living in the wild, off the land. In both scenarios, there would be a great deal of violence and danger. Perhaps she thought a compromise, using the ideas of both worlds, would be the ultimate outcome of such thinking.