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

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.

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“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...

(The entire section contains 2548 words.)

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