BOOK: Into the Heart of the Canyon by Elisabeth Hyde (2009)

I love non-fiction books about women who go out into the wild and do amazing, daring stuff I would never do (“amazing, daring stuff I would never do” consisting of just about anything anybody does anywhere that can be classified as “the wild,” of course — coward!).

Many years ago, I read a great book in that category called Shooting the Boh, a non-fiction tale about author Tracy Johnston’s white water rafting trip down the Boh river in Borneo.  I found it absolutely riveting and have thought of it many times since (even just got my mom to read it recently — she loved it as well!).  So, when I saw this book highlighted on the “good summer reads” shelf at my local bookstore, I snatched it up, thinking it might be like a fictionalized version of Shooting the Boh.

And it is, sort of.  Except nowhere near as good, alas.  Into the Heart of the Canyon is definitely entertaining, but it’s also lacking in a lot of the emotional depth and exploration of Johnson’s book.  Which is weird, because the author of this novel, Elisabeth Hyde, was inspired to write it by her own rapid-running adventure; it’s not like she hasn’t had that inspirational, incredible experience herself.  Yet I think she missed what makes these kinds of stories so engaging.  Her book was far too focused on interactions between the characters, and not focused enough on the changes the characters experienced in themselves — and that just didn’t feel quite right to me.  It worked, I suppose, but it turned what seems like a natural personal growth story into a bit of a standard soap opera instead.

That said, this novel is definitely fun to read — it’s written well enough, and the rafting and camping/outdoorsy scenes were well drawn and engaging.  The story is about a group of people from a variety of backgrounds and ages, all brought together for a commercial river rafting trip — a one-week adventure, and an expensive one at that, featuring three boats, three guides, and all lodging (tents) and food (gourmet!) provided.

The separate characters are all of fairly standard types, though some of them do have surprising character shifts by the end:  the young 20-something male who develops a crush on the hot female raft guide, the elderly couple taking their last trip down the river together (the husband has developed Alzheimer’s), the middle-aged woman recovering from a divorce by taking herself on an adventure, the bickering couple with two young kids, and a mother who has dragged her teenage daughter Amy along on the trip in an attempt to bond with her.

Amy ends up being the focus of the story, for the most part, entries in her diary punctuating the ends of each chapter.  She’s morbidly obese and her diary entries painfully reminded me of my own when I was a kid — a lot of self-loathing directed at her body.  Hard, angry self-loathing.  It hit home so sharply in a few places it made me wonder if Hyde had been a “fat kid” herself when she was younger, as I was.  I’d love to see her write an entire novel focused just on that character, to be honest.  Or perhaps I’d love to see myself write that novel.

In any case, Amy is struggling the entire trip with painful stomach cramps, the origin of which we find out at the very end.  This subplot was kind of unnecessarily melodramatic and out-of-place in the story for me, though.  I’m not sure it added anything all that poignant, and it seemed more like an afterthought in some ways — a exit strategy designed to send the characters out with a bit of a bang.  A bang they didn’t really need, if you ask me.

Aside from that flaw, however, I found this novel pretty satisfying and it should appeal to anybody who likes reading these sorts of things.  Recommended to that group; the rest of you are probably better off reading something else.


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