The River at Night
Erica Ferencik
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Buy *The River at Night* by Erica Ferencikonline

The River at Night
Erica Ferencik
Gallery/Scout Press
304 pages
January 2017
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The River at Night.

Ferencik writes a terrific survival tale in which a series of precarious circumstances deliver thirty-something Winifred Allen and her friends to the brink of tragedy. A Boston native, Wini works as a graphic designer for a popular food magazine and lives alone, with only her ginger cat for company. Well aware of the danger, Wini decides to bite the bullet anyway and accompany her friends Pia, Rachel, and Sandra on a Winnegosset River Rafting adventure in Northern Maine. Wini initially chafes at the idea until Pia forces her hand. Rafting might be dangerous, but Pia tells Wini not to worry. She’s got total confidence in handsome, dreadlocked Rory Ekhart, the 20-year-old rafting guide who will escort the women down the rapids.

Too often, Wini has felt left out of the group and frequently horror-stricken by Pia’s dangerous, reckless behavior. This time, however, Wini is pushed by her friends to partake in this “unforgettable adventure,” perhaps in part to assuage the self-loathing she’ll inflict on herself if she stays behind. The trip represents a new beginning and a way forward, a means to dispel the day when Richard, her husband, suddenly abandoned her. Wini makes us feel the depth and breadth of her grief, from her aging body and “the crash and burn” of her marriage to the unfathomable loss of Marcus, her younger brother.

The expedition gets underway. Pia becomes the dominant force, the life of the party as she waxes lyrical about Rory and about how “fear keeps you sharp.” Wini, Rachel, and Sharon are less enthusiastic of Roy’s naked energy and his garrulous attraction to Pia. Arriving at Moose Creek Lodge on the first leg of their journey, the women admire “the shimmering strands” of river and marvel at the wilderness steadily unfolding before them. Emboldened by food, wine, and the insane beauty around them--and surrounded by the comforting presence of the group--Wini admits that she never thought she would be outside in the Maine woods in early summer with her friends and one strange man: “It’s as though the woods have come alive with logic and intelligence.”

The journey down the river starts out well. The group settle into a good rhythm while the river dances over the shallow down-rapids, and water flutes and turns through a series of glacial potholes. But when tragedy strikes and things fall apart, the women are suddenly stranded. As they are lifted from the river like “some thick furred beast,” the women realize that they must now fend for themselves. Marooned in a landscape of alarming beauty indifferent to their plight, Wini, Pia, Sharon, and Rachel fight for their lives. In desperation, they turn to a bottled and ferocious “woods creature,” a boy with a tortured energy, and to his mother, whose eyes glitter "with feral intelligence.”

“We were rafting, and there was an accident. We’re lost and need help.” Their plea will come to haunt the women as they try to figure out when and how they can escape. Beyond stands the “living forest,” unimaginably dense and shadow-filled, a terrifying jungle filled with creatures “whose eyes are built for darkness.” As the river and its endless rapids begin to close in on them, we can feel the women flowing with the raft as it whipsaws about, falling and flailing into the blinding current. From the spray across their faces to the heat and exhaustion entailed in moving through mysterious woods filled with flora and fauna of every description, Ferencik conveys the utter heart-pounding nightmare of being the hunted in an unforgiving environment occupied by savage people who could kill you.

The novel gets top marks for bearing witness to life’s requisite doggedness and the notion that friends never give up on one another, even in the most perilous of circumstances. Ironically, passive Wini becomes the unsuspecting heroine, trying to keep her friends together as fatigue and despair roll over them. Pia, Sharon, and Rachel the truth of what nature has fashioned: “We could feel the river changing underneath us, I read it in our faces, the effort to ready ourselves for whatever was coming next.” The river is always violent and unforgiving, wheeling the women around and plunging them ever further into the perilous rapids: “it’s as if some laughing devil were spinning the raft for sport.”

Haunting and dangerous, The River at Night is a fast-paced, man-against-nature adventure story that reinvents what can happen when urban women, unsure how their knowledge and abilities will serve them, are plunged into a harsh and volatile world. Shepherding many attributes of James Dickey’s infamous Deliverance, Ferencik’s story is a cautionary tale along the lines of many of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales: stay out of the woods. They're dangerous, because what lives there can kill you.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2017

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