Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The River at Night.
Ferencik’s novel centers on four longtime friends who gather for a yearly adventure, middle-aged women craving a respite from their daily lives and an opportunity to catch up with one another. The choice of destination this year falls to Pia, the most athletic of the group, who has selected whitewater rafting in the Alagash wilderness in Maine. Winifred, a food editor for a cooking magazine, is the opposite of Pia and the emotional center of the tale, the least likely to agree to such a physically challenging trip. After a difficult divorce and the tragic death of her beloved brother, Marcus, Wini convinces herself to try something outside her comfort zone, happy for the opportunity to be with the other two, Rachel and especially Sandy, with whom she feels closest.
After a long drive, the women plan to meet with their guide, Rory, a handsome college student, setting out from a lodge the next morning. Things go well on the drive, the women getting acclimated to the change of scene from city to nature, even running into some hunters along the way, a reminder of the differences between city environs and the rugged natural terrain they are entering. They are thrilled to finally meet the gregarious Rory--especially Pia, who enjoys an immediate physical reaction to their guide, both fit and capable in comparison to the others. There is a genuine sense of excitement among the group, anticipation of a whitewater adventure none had imagined they would ever undertake until Pia’s suggestion.
The author builds this adventure on the muted excitement of trying something new, the women’s desire to reconnect, and the private stories shared by each over the time apart, friends bonding for different reasons, willing to invest in these important friendships as their lives change direction. Even the exotic unknown, the lush wilderness, is part of the canvas, unfamiliar yet to be experienced. With Winifred narrating, each woman becomes integral to the unfolding plot, bringing along her personal eccentricities, painful encounters, and resolutions to poor choices. They move as a team under Rory’s tutelage, taking direction, all of them necessary to navigate the dangers of the rapids as they begin their journey down the river. The beauty that surrounds them is breathtaking, the occasional terror of perilous speed resolving in screams of relief, only the occasional distraction of the flirtation between Pia and the guide chafing on the harmony of the group
Secretly proud of herself for agreeing to come, if sometimes giving into the fear that has become a familiar companion to her days, Wini is not oblivious to the fact that there is real danger in this seductive landscape they are visiting. This is nature, both stunning and unpredictable, slipping from exhilarating to deadly in the matter of seconds, from an outdoors adventure to a life-and-death situation. When tragedy strikes, an annual outing becomes a matter of survival. Alone at night in the wilderness, the four friends are stranded with no directions and no supplies, dependent on their own wits and courage.
Each is a critical element to the well-being of all. What begins as a personal challenge for Wini becomes far more, the small fissures of friendship exacerbated by the sheer terror of a predicament that grows more dangerous as the night goes on.
What the friends face on the roiling river and deep wilderness terrain is not the stuff of manufactured campfire tales but the brutal reality of the natural world, the myriad opportunities for harm in nature’s intricate landscape. The protagonists are exposed, challenged, and torn by conflicting solutions, yet fiercely loyal to one another. It’s a simple adventure gone horribly wrong, a story of grief, survival,
and bravery--harrowing, yet courageous and fully alive.