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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2548

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At the beginning of The River, Brian Robeson opens his front door to three men. They ask if he is the Brian Robeson who survived for fifty-four days alone in the Canadian wilderness after a plane crash. Brian says yes. He thinks at first that the men are with the press, but they explain that they work for the government, teaching and providing psychological support for a military survival school. They want Brian to take one of them into the woods and show them how to survive.

“It’s a joke, right?” Brian asks—but he soon realizes that the men are serious. His period in the woods, which he thinks of as simply “the Time,” changed him, made him see and hear everything differently. Nobody can really understand how it felt to rely totally on himself, to re-discover fire, and to experience hunger that felt like it would never end. Brian tries to explain this to the men, but they reply that this is exactly what they want to learn. Eventually, with his parents’ consent, Brian decides to go.

Brian knows that his decision seems crazy. Most of what he remembers of the Time was terrible, but there were good parts too: the beauty of nature, and a sense of being capable of taking care of himself. People always assume that the Time hurt him, but he knows it did not. Instead, it made him a better person. He is quieter and more serious, but also closer to his mother and more able to accept hard realities, like his parents’ divorce.

Two weeks after Brian meets the three men, he and a military psychologist, Derek, board a bush plane to northern Canada. They consider bringing an elaborate set of back-up supplies, “just for emergencies,” but at the last minute Brian decides that they need to leave the gear behind. The only supplies Brian allows are a radio, in case they need to call for help, and an all-weather briefcase containing some spiral notebooks so that Derek can record what he learns. In addition to this, Brian and Derek each have a pocketknife.

The moment Brian lands on the lake, he finds himself reverting to the behaviors he learned during the Time. He notices everything around him: every bird, every plant, the feel of the air and the clouds. He realizes that it is going to rain in just six or seven hours, and he sets immediately to work making fire and shelter.

Derek works to help him erect a simple lean-to, but Brian fails to find flint, the kind of stone he needs to use to make a spark with the steel of his knife blade. When night falls they have no smoke to ward off the thick swarms of mosquitoes that attack them. Brian just covers himself as well as he can and lets the bugs bite the skin that remains bare. Derek fidgets and slaps until Brian says:

You must settle. In your mind. There are some fights you can’t win, and I think this must be one of them.

The rain starts in the middle of the night. It pours down straight through the makeshift shelter. Brian and Derek end up sitting under a tree and let the rain soak them.

All the next day, Brian works at finding shelter, food, and flint—which he calls “fire stone” because he did not know its name on his last trip to the wilderness. Derek presses him to speak aloud about what he is doing. He works his way along the edge of the lake, keeping it in sight to avoid getting lost, keeping an eye out for shelter and food. “Food is everything,” Brian explains. He continues:

You watch other animals, birds, fish, even down to ants—they spend all their time working at food. Getting something to eat. That’s what nature is, really—getting food.

By the end of the day, with Derek’s help, Brian has made a better shelter and built a fire. The two of them eat little except for raspberries and a few nuts, but over the next several days, they make tools and gather fish and clams.

As the days pass, Brian teaches Derek the basics of survival. Derek is uncoordinated and unskilled, but he is sincerely interested in learning how to survive and in helping others with his knowledge. Brian likes him. Still, Brian thinks his whole experience with Derek seems wrong somehow. He explains:

You don’t just fly in and get set on a perfect lake and have all the food you want and have it all come this easy. It isn’t real.

Brian tries to articulate how he felt during his first survival experience. He was alone, traumatized after watching the pilot of his plane die of a heart attack and injured after crashing the plane. Now, with Derek, he is surviving—but he is not scared and afraid the way he would be during an emergency. Derek thinks this over, clearly trying to discover how to work this into survival training. “You need the tension created by the emergency,” he says, and Brian agrees.

That night, Brian wakes up to the sound of thunder. The storm seems far away, but he knows how terrible it can be to experience storms in the wilderness. It will come or not; there is nothing he can do about it. Hoping it will miss them, he goes back to sleep. Hours later, the loudest thunderclap he has ever heard jolts him out of sleep. The booming sound goes on for a long time. In the midst of it, unable to hear Brian’s warning to stay down, Derek gets up and grabs the radio. At that moment, lightning strikes. It hits Derek directly. Brian, a few feet away, also absorbs some of the shock.

Some time later, Brian awakes to the smell and taste of burned hair. He feels awful, and the light of day hurts his eyes. It takes him a moment to piece together what has happened. Soon he finds Derek nearby, lying on his back, eyes half open. He does not respond when Brian speaks, but he is breathing. Brian cannot think properly, and everything looks fuzzy. Slowly he realizes that he needs help, but when he locates the radio, he sees that the lightning destroyed it.

For a day, Brian waits and hopes that Derek will return to consciousness. As Brian regains his ability to think, he considers his situation. He and Derek are supposed to radio status reports once every week, and they did this the night before the thunderstorm. When their next status report does not come through, people will realize that something is wrong. This means that help will come in a week to ten days. This is too long. Derek chokes and vomits up whatever water Brian tries to feed him. In ten days, the man will be dead—unless Brian finds a way to get help.

In Derek’s briefcase, with his notebooks, Brian finds a map. A river flows out of the lake, and about a hundred miles downstream is a trading post. Brian considers leaving the man alone and going to the trading post for help, but he knows that wild animals will likely eat Derek’s unconscious body in the intervening time. Somehow, Brian and Derek have to go downriver together. The best bet, Brian decides, is a raft.

Building a raft is not so easy, however. Brian built one during the Time, but he had a hatchet then. Now he has only a knife, which he cannot easily use to chop down trees. When he finds a beaver dam, he realizes he can use the beavers’ logs. He lashes them together with branches and uses strips of his jacket to hold them in place. The resulting craft is seaworthy but hard to steer.

Brian is not used to being responsible for other people. During the Time, he only had to take care of himself. It is a hard thing, having to make choices that could result in another person’s death, but that is what he must do. He tells Derek the choice that he has to make, just in case the unconscious man can hear him somehow: either they stay, and Derek dies, or they go. If they go, Derek may still die—but at least Brian will have tried. “We go,” he says aloud, making his decision final.

Derek is bigger than Brian, and it takes a great deal of strength to push the man down the bank to the raft. Brian works at it a few inches at a time, eventually working Derek’s body to the middle of the raft and tying him down. At the last moment, Brian realizes that rescuers may come looking for them. He leaves a note in the radio case to explain what has happened and what he has decided to do.

The raft holds together fairly well as Brian navigates around the edge of the lake toward the river. When he gets into the river’s current, the water begins carrying him at about the speed of a walking person. After a hundred yards or so, the river bends and the raft gets stuck on a bank. With a great deal of effort, Brian poles himself free. A bit further, the same thing happens. The raft gets stuck many more times before Brian manages to use a pole and an oar to steer through turns without stopping.

As time passes on the river, Brian gets into a rhythm of paddling and steering. Although he gives himself a break of ten minutes every hour, he is soon incredibly tired and sore. Sometime after night falls, he begins hallucinating. Eventually his body gives in, and he falls asleep.

When Brian wakes up, it is still dark. He is on a lake. At first he panics, but eventually he calms himself down and forces himself to think rationally. Using the moon as a guide, he figures out which direction to go. Trying to ignore the blisters on his hands, he returns to the job of paddling. Without the river’s current to help, the going is incredibly slow. His hallucinations return, growing more and more intense. Worse than that, his mind takes hold of a terrible idea. He is paddling a heavy raft, and the reason it is so heavy is because it is carrying Derek. If Derek were just “gone,” then Brian could go faster, could get home, could save himself. His mind stays stuck on this thought through much of the rest of the night, but he fights it, even going so far as to shout at himself. When dawn comes, Brian is grateful. With the relief of daylight, his frightening temptation goes away.

Now that it is light, Brian examines the map. The lake from the middle of the night is not on it, which leaves him wondering if other aspects of the map may be wrong as well. In particular, he wonders if the trading post is really where the map says it will be. This thought shocks him—but there is nothing he can do about it now. There is no way to get Derek back to the lake, so Brian has to paddle on and hope that he will reach help eventually. He ignores his hunger and fatigue and forces himself to focus on moving forward. Now and then, he even looks around at the beauty of the Canadian wilderness, noting to the unconscious Derek that

if we were in a canoe and had a lunch and a cooler full of pop, we’d think this was the most beautiful place in the world.

Soon after Brian makes this observation, the raft carries him to a small waterfall and a patch of rapids. By the time Brian realizes what is coming, it is too late to get out of the flow. He rides through the rushing water, flying through the spray and hitting a boulder. He hangs onto Derek and makes it through the impact, but then a huge wave engulfs the raft and throws Brian off. He hits the river floor and tumbles through the water, struggling to swim. Briefly, he is knocked unconscious.

Brian awakes to find himself in the shallows alone. Derek and the raft are both missing. Brian tries to remember the moment when he was knocked into the water, and he thinks that the raft was still upright, with Derek still tied in place. Wearily, Brian gets up and tries to walk downriver. When he finds that he cannot easily walk on the marshy riverbank, he decides to swim.

Brian swims to the next bend in the river, and the next, and the next, but he does not find the raft. He curses it for staying in the river’s flow here, when it got hung up so easily before. Brian’s body is weak and sore, but he has no choice but to keep going. He swims past several more bends in the river, but he does not see the raft. Eventually he gets so tired that he forgets to look for it, and when he does come to it, he nearly swims right past. It is only luck that makes him raise his head at the right moment.

Derek is still tied to the raft, and still breathing, although he looks much worse after the latest adventure. Brian climbs onto the raft and falls asleep. When he wakes up, he is sitting up and paddling with a newly constructed paddle. He marvels at this, but he knows that his body must have gone back to getting its job done while he was still half asleep. He rows, two strokes on the right and two on the left. He pushes hunger and home out of his mind. He does not think about how far he has gone. He does not think about the pain in his blistered hands. All he does is paddle.

Eventually, Brian comes around a bend in the river and sees a dock. On the dock is a boy, who stares at him in shock for a second, and then runs for help. Soon two adults appear. Brian stops rowing and lets them lift him off the raft, and Derek too.

The River ends with a short epilogue, which says that Brian has managed to move himself and Derek 119 miles downriver in 63 hours, using a makeshift raft that began the trip weighing 200 pounds, but which doubled its weight as it took on water during the trip.

Rescuers take Derek to a hospital, where he regains consciousness in a week and makes a full recovery. Brian heals well, perhaps partly because he came to his ordeal so well prepared. His parents tell him that he can never go into the wilderness again—but he argues that he has proven he can survive just about anything, so eventually they relent. Several months later, Brian is at home cooking dinner when someone appears at the door. It is a delivery man bringing him a beautiful canoe, along with a note from Derek: “Next time it won’t be so hard to paddle. Thanks.”