A “raw, relentless, and heart-poundingly real” (Ruth Ware, New York Times bestselling author) thriller set against the harsh beauty of the Maine wilderness, The River at Night charts the journey of four friends as they fight to survive the aftermath of a white water rafting accident.
Winifred Allen needs a vacation.
Stifled by a soul-crushing job, devastated by the death of her beloved brother, and lonely after the end of a fifteen-year marriage, Wini is feeling vulnerable. So when her three best friends insist on a high-octane getaway for their annual girls’ trip, she signs on, despite her misgivings.
What starts out as an invigorating hiking and rafting excursion in the remote Allagash Wilderness soon becomes an all-too-real nightmare; a freak accident leaves the women stranded, separating them from their raft and everything they need to survive. When night descends, a fire on the mountainside lures them to a ramshackle camp that appears to be their lifeline. But as Wini and her friends grasp the true intent of their supposed saviors, long buried secrets emerge and lifelong allegiances are put to the test. To survive, Wini must reach beyond the world she knows to harness an inner strength she never knew she possessed.
With intimately observed characters and visceral prose, The River at Night “will leave you gasping, your heart racing, eyes peering over your shoulder to see what follows from behind” (Mary Kubica, New York Times bestselling author). This is a dark exploration of creatures—both friend and foe—that you won’t soon forget.
Early one morning in late March, Pia forced my hand.
A slapping spring wind ushered me through the heavy doors of the YMCA lobby as the minute hand of the yellowing 1950s-era clock over the check-in desk snapped to 7:09. Head down and on task to be in my preferred lane by precisely 7:15, I rushed along the glass corridor next to the pool. The chemical stink leaked from the ancient windows, as did the muffled shrieks of children and the lifeguard’s whistle. I felt cosseted by the shabby walls, by my self-righteous routine, by the fact that I’d ousted myself from my warm bed to face another tedious day head-on. Small victories.
I’d just squeezed myself into my old-lady swimsuit when the phone in my bag began to bleat. I dug it out. The screen pulsed with the image of Pia Zanderlee ski-racing down a double black diamond slope somewhere in Banff.
My choices? Answer it now or play phone tag for another week. Pia was that friend you love with a twinge of resentment. The sparkly one who never has time for you unless it’s on her schedule, but you like her too much to flush her down the friendship toilet.
“Wow, a phone call—from you!” I said as I mercilessly assessed my middle-aged pudge in the greasy mirror. “To what do I owe the honor?”
Of course I knew the reason. Five unanswered texts.
Pia laughed. “Hey, Win, listen. We need to make our reservations. Like, by tomorrow.”
I fished around in my swim bag for my goggles. “Yeah, I haven’t—”
“I get it. Nature’s not your thing, but you’re going to love it once you’re out there. Rachel and Sandra are chomping at the bit to go, but they have to make their travel plans. We all do.”
With a shudder, I recalled my frantic Google search the night before for Winnegosset River Rafting, Maine.
“Just wondering why this place doesn’t have some kind of website. I mean, is it legit?” I asked, my voice coming out all high and tinny. Already I was ashamed of my wussiness. “I’d hate to get all the way up there and find out this is some sort of shady operation—”
I could feel her roll her eyes. “Wini, just because some place or something or someone doesn’t have a website doesn’t mean they don’t exist.” She sounded windblown, breathless. I pictured her power walking through her Cambridge neighborhood, wrist weights flashing neon. “It’s a big old world out there. One of the reasons this place is so awesome is because no one knows about it yet, so it’s not booked solid before the snow’s even melted. That’s why there’s space for the weekend we all want, get it? This year, it’s the world’s best-kept secret—next year, forget it!”
“I don’t know, Pia . . .” I glanced at the time: 7:14.
She laughed, softening to me now. “Look, the guy who runs the white-water tours is a good friend of my dad—he’s my dad’s friend’s son, I mean, so it’s cool.”
“Can’t believe Rachel would want to—”
“Are you crazy? She’s dying to go. And Sandra? Please. She’d get on a plane right now if she could.”
With a wave of affection I pictured my last Skype with Sandra: kids running around screaming in the background, papers to correct stacked next to her. When I brought up the trip, she’d groaned, Hell, yes, I’m game for anything—just get me out of Dodge!
“Wini, listen up: Next year—I promise, we’ll go to a beach somewhere. Cancún, Key West, you choose. Do nothing and just bake.”
“Look, Pia, I’m at the pool and I’m going to lose my lane—”
“Okay. Swim. Then call me.”
I tucked my flyaway dirty-blond bob—the compromise cut for all hopelessly shitty hair—under my bathing cap, then hustled my stuff into a locker and slammed it shut. Do nothing and just bake. Did she really think that was all I was interested in? Who was the one who rented the bike the last time we went to the Cape? Just me, as I recalled, while all of them sat around the rental pouring more and more tequila into the blender each day. And my God—we were all pushing forty—shouldn’t awesome and cool be in the rearview mirror by now?
• • •
I crossed the slimy tiles of the dressing room and pushed open the swinging doors to the pool. The air hit me, muggy and warm, dense with chlorine that barely masked an underwhiff of urine and sweat. Children laughed and punched at the blue water in the shallow end as I padded over to my favorite lane, which was . . . occupied.
It was 7:16 and frog man had beat me to it. Fuck.
For close to a year, this nonagenarian ear, nose, and throat doctor and I had been locked in a mostly silent daily battle over the best lane—far left-hand side, under the skylights—from 7:15 to 8:00 each weekday morning. Usually I was the victor, something about which I’d felt ridiculous glee. We’d only ever exchanged the briefest of greetings; both of us getting to the Y a notch earlier each day. I imagined we both craved this mindless exercise, thoughts freed by the calming boredom of swimming and near weightlessness.
But today I’d lost the battle. I plopped down on a hard plastic seat, pouting inside but feigning serenity as I watched him slap through his slow-motion crawl. He appeared to lose steam near the end of a lap, then climbed the ladder out of the pool as only a ninety-year-old can: with careful deliberation in every step. As I watched the water drip off his flat ass and down his pencil legs, I realized that he was making his way to me, or rather to a stack of towels next to me, and in a few seconds I’d pretty much have to talk to him. He uncorked his goggles with a soft sucking sound. I noticed his eyes seemed a bit wearier than usual, even for a man his age who had just worked his daily laps.
“How are you?” I shifted in my seat, conscious of my bathing cap squeezing my head and distorting my face as I stole the odd glance at the deliciously empty lane.
“I’m well, thank you. Though very sad today.”
I studied him more closely now, caught off guard by his intimate tone. “Why?”
Though his expression was grim, I wasn’t prepared for what he said.
“I just lost my daughter to cancer.”
“I’m sorry,” I choked out. I felt socked in the soft fleshy parts; smacked off the rails of my deeply grooved routine and whipped around to face something I didn’t want to see.
He took a towel and poked at his ears with it. A gold cross hung from a glimmering chain around his thin neck, the skin white and rubbery looking. “It was a long struggle. Part of me is glad it’s over.” He squinted at me as if seeing me for the first time. “She was about your age,” he added, turning to walk away before I could utter a word of comfort. I watched him travel in his flap step the length of the pool to the men’s lockers, his head held down so low I could barely see the top of it.
My hands trembled as I gripped the steel ladder and made my way down into the antiseptic blue. I pushed off. Eyes shut tight and heart pumping, I watched the words She was about your age hover in my brain until the letters dissolved into nothingness. The horror of his offhand observation numbed me as I turned and floated on my back, breathing heavily in the oppressive air. As I slogged joylessly through my laps, I thought of my own father rolling his eyes when I said I was afraid of sleepaway camp, of third grade, of walking on grass barefoot “because of worms.” As cold as he could be to my brother and me, not a thing on earth seemed to frighten him.
I had barely toweled myself off when my phone lit up with a text from Pia. A question mark, that was it. Followed by three more. Methodically I removed my work clothes from my locker, arranging them neatly on the bench behind me. I pulled off my bathing cap, sat down, and picked up the phone.
My thumbs hovered over the keys as I shivered in the overheated locker room. I took a deep breath—shampoo, rubber, mold, a sting of disinfectant—and slowly let it out, a sharp pain lodging in my gut. I couldn’t tell which was worse, the fear of being left behind by my friends as they dashed away on some überbonding, unforgettable adventure, or the inevitable self-loathing if I stayed behind like some gutless wimp—safe, always safe—half-fucking-dead with safety. Why couldn’t I just say yes to a camping trip with three of my best friends? What was I so afraid of?
Pool water dripped from my hair, beading on the phone as I commanded myself to text something.
I watched my fingers as they typed, Okay, I’m in, and pressed send.
This reading group guide for The River at Night includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
When her best friend, Pia, suggests a girls’ trip to the mountains, Winifred Allen isn’t exactly in the position to say no. After the loss of her beloved brother and her husband’s abandoning her for a younger woman, she desperately needs the vacation—even if it’s a white-water rafting trip through Maine’s desolate Allagash Wilderness. Four women pack up and go on what they know will be a challenging—but also hopefully fun and refreshing—trip, only to find themselves thrust into a scene out of a horror film. A freak accident leaves the group stranded without supplies or any means of contacting the outside world; with no raft to get them downriver, they’re forced to find their way through the woods. But Wini and her friends soon realize that the kindness of strangers cannot always be trusted, and their worst nightmares suddenly become realities.
With twists and turns as unpredictable as the river itself, The River at Night is a breathtaking thriller that forces us to consider how one survives when nothing—and no one—can be trusted.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. “The woods on either side grew dense, impenetrable, alive with their own logic and intelligence” (page 38). Discuss how nature, specifically the woods and the river, act as a character in the novel.
2. The book opens with a quote by Henry David Thoreau. Consider the quote in relation to Simone and Dean, as well as the relationships between Pia, Rachel, Sandra, and Wini. Why do you think the author chose to start the novel with this quote?
3. Concerns about aging and the passing of time come up frequently in The River at Night. Why do you think age becomes a factor in Pia’s encounter with Rory? Why does age matter in terms of Rory’s expertise as a guide? Discuss how age plays a role in the novel and within your own lives.
4. The women use Pia and Rory’s sexual encounter to unearth some frustrations they have with one another. Discuss the strength of their bonds and how a trip like this may have forced them to reconcile previous tensions more than a less stressful vacation would have.
5. Wini, Pia, Rachel, and Sandra have long been friends—but they have strikingly different personalities. Which of the women do you relate to the most? The least? Discuss the reasons as a group.
6. On page 51, the characters learn that the river is largely on public property. Sandra goes so far as to say, “Nobody owns a river, right?” Is there an underlying message about conservation and environmentalism in the novel? Discuss what other ways a river, forest, or public park might be “owned.”
7. Wini, Rachel, Sandra, and Pia have experienced heartache in many different ways. Whose heartache do you relate to the most? The least?
8. In Chapter 7, just before the women truly commence their trip, Wini remembers her last camping experience. Discuss how the loss of her brother affects Wini’s life and how this flashback weaves its way into the rest of the novel.
9. Discuss the two major deaths in this novel. How are they different? What strikes you most about Rory’s passing? About Sandra’s? Do you think that either could have been prevented?
10. As the antagonist of the story, Simone can be seen as ruthless, deadly, and potentially crazy. One could argue, however, that Simone is just another survivor in the novel. Do you think the author means for her to be more than the villain? Why or why not?
11. “This raft—any raft—flips, and when it does, you have to be prepared. You get no warning. You need to always be ready to be upside down and in that water” (page 125). Discuss what it means to be prepared. Which of the women would you trust most to help should you find yourself lost in a similar situation? Which qualities do you believe are most necessary for surviving in the woods?
12. When the trip is over, the women attempt to get back to normalcy. Wini, however, becomes legal guardian over Dean. Does her decision surprise you?
13. Traveling with a group (or a partner) can often strengthen a friendship. Do you think the trip brought these women closer together? Why or why not?
14. Have you ever been in a situation where you say yes to something—even while feeling fearful or deeply distrustful—because you want to be part of a group? What has been the result?
15. The River at Night references loneliness many times, especially in the context of female friendships. Do you feel that the nature of your close friendships has changed over the years? If so, why, and how have you coped with these changes?
16. Fear plays a big role in this book. A natural survival mechanism, fear speeds our reaction times, energizing the muscles for a swifter escape. But what about the role of fear in modern life? Does it ever play a negative role?
17. What is your relationship with nature? Fearful, comfortable, awe-inspired, disgusted, indifferent? Has it changed over the years? If so, in what ways?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Consider reading Ruth Ware’s In A Dark, Dark Wood for your next book group. Discuss the themes of good and evil and surviving the unexpected in both novels. Which book is more believable?
2. The River at Night opens with a quote by Henry David Thoreau. Consider reading poetry by Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Frost, or Elizabeth Bishop. Keeping their poems in mind, consider the role New England’s landscape plays in this book.
3. Plan your own girls’ trip to the woods. Find a local hiking trail, white-water rafting course, or campsite. Before you go, discuss each group member’s strengths and how they will be useful throughout the course of the trip.
Erica Ferencik is a graduate of the MFA program in creative writing at Boston University. Her work has appeared in Salon and The Boston Globe, as well as on NPR. Find out more on her website EricaFerencik.com and follow her on Twitter @EricaFerencik. She is the author of The River at Night and Into the Jungle.