Sunday, October 4, 2015

The River by Gary Paulsen

Source of book: We own this, but listened to it on audiobook during a trip.

“You panic, you die!” ~ K_____, divemaster

A couple of decades ago, during the class I was taking, along with my father, brother, and sister, to get our SCUBA certification, this guy was our divemaster, assisting the instructor. He probably repeated this about a dozen times in a row, with different inflections each time. And you know what? He was right. Underwater, strapped to a limited air supply, panic will kill you faster than anything else. Even doing stupid stuff is more survivable than panic.

While I have yet to put into practice K_____’s other bit of advice (“Fresh caught lobster is best cooked with Heineken and celery salt.”), I have never forgotten to breathe first whenever I feel the urge to panic - in every area of life. 

I was reminded of this advice again while listening to The River. This book is a sequel to Paulsen’s breakout hit, Hatchet, a tale of wilderness survival. The River takes place a few months after Brian is rescued from his ordeal following an unexpected airplane crash in the Canadian wilderness. I mention that it is “a” sequel, because Paulsen wrote The River as the first book after Hatchet, and it follows the original chronology of that book. Later, Paulsen would respond to criticism of the way Hatchet ended (with a rescue, a deux ex machina), and write Brian’s Winter, which imagines what would have happened had Brian not been rescued, and had instead had to spend the harsh winter marooned.

Since we also own the other Hatchet novels, I imagine I will be reading (or listening) to them in the future.

The River begins when Brian is contacted by Derek Holtzer, a government psychologist. The government wishes to revamp its survival training, and hopes Brian can assist them by accompanying Derek on another wilderness trip. Derek hopes to take notes, and perhaps find insights in how to prepare military personnel to respond to survival scenarios.

Part of the problem, as Brian notes, is that the current training is too safe. With the knowledge of that safety, people make different decisions than they would if they were truly in a life-or-death situation.

To that end, Brian insists that they leave the gear, and venture into the wilderness armed merely with knives and their wits.

For the most part, this goes well. However, Brian is still unhappy, because they haven’t really experienced a crisis. One does occur eventually, and Brian must navigate a river over 100 miles to find help.

As a novel, I didn’t find this one as good as Hatchet. I’m not sure if it was just the curse of the sequel, sophomore slump, or whatever; or if it was that the plot seemed to drive the book a little too much. In some ways, I think it would have been more satisfying if Derek had not been incapacitated, but that the crisis would have come from a different direction. For the first half of the book, part of the fun was the interaction between Brian and Derek, and this book had the possibility of becoming a character driven drama. Instead, Brian is again left alone to do his usual magic.

There are some good bits. As usual, Paulsen’s first-hand knowledge of the outdoors makes for accurate detail. As in Hatchet, all of the specifics check out. Those of us who have spent time hiking in the woods or around rivers will appreciate that Paulsen gets things right. No false notes appear in the flora, fauna, or physics. If Brian is the recipient of some good luck at times, he at least knows it. The bad luck, likewise, isn’t a stretch, but plausible.

Paulsen also gets at the heart of survival in all situations. Bad luck can get you killed, and that just sucks. Not much you can do about it. But, in borderline situations, it isn’t so much the physical circumstances that make the difference between survival and failure, but the mental ones.

I’m always interested in real life survival stories. Just this year, there was one involving a 16 year old girl who was stranded after a small plane crash.  Even though she wasn’t particularly experienced (even at her age, I had far more hiking under my belt), she had presence of mind. The story doesn’t bring all of it out, but a more detailed account (which I can’t find now), noted that she reasoned that a downhill route should bring her to some sort of road eventually. She also kept her wits enough to avoid panic even after a few days of hiking. In contrast, it is easy to find accounts of those in far better physical shape, with better gear for keeping warm and fed, who ended up going in circles, or falling off cliffs, and other stuff that was directly attributable to losing rationality.

You panic, you die.

This is what Brian is trying to show Derek. All the cerebral training in the world won’t help you, if you do not learn to slow down the natural instincts, and operate out of calmness rather than fear. This holds true outside of crisis situations as well. Most of our worst decisions, personally, as parents, and in relation to just about every area of life are made from a place of fear, rather than a sound mind.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
36 years old and still great advice...

1 comment:

  1. I read this series when I was in middle school. They're good books for kids that age, even if I didn't care much for Gary Paulsen