Pam Withers sets the pace for her latest novel, “First Descent” (Tundra Books, 2011), with the opening sentence: “When the shot rang out, I leapt from my bed, lifted a corner of the bedroom curtain, and looked down on the river bend.” (It’s not what you think.)
At the age of seventeen, Rex Scruggs is already a world champion kayaker. Now, he is determined to descend the Furioso, a Columbian river that lives up to its name. Only one man has ever attempted to kayak the Furioso: his legendary (and thoroughly unpleasant) grandfather, Malcolm Scruggs. This is Rex’s chance to carry on the family legacy—and prove his worth to the gruff old man. His grandfather’s one request was that Rex find the Calambás family: a starving daughter, so the story went, had given him a necklace in return for an avocado sandwich. The necklace has become Rex’s good luck charm.
Once in Columbia, Rex meets the young woman who will be his guide along the river, Myriam Calambás, an indigenous Columbian who has lived along El Furioso her entire life. At this point, you may have deduced that Myriam has some connection to the necklace, but it’s not as far-fetched as you might imagine. In Myriam’s chapters, which more or less alternate with Rex’s, we learn that her community is beset both by the guerillas, who supposedly fight for the poor, and the paramilitary soldiers, hired by the rich landowners to fight the guerillas. Myriam dreams of attending college and becoming a journalist so that she can make others aware of the plight of her people.
Rex, who in many ways is like his grandfather—narcissistic, dismissive of others, and over-confident—soon learns that the real danger in this new world is not the river, but the guerillas and paramilitaries. Can he achieve first descent, and do right by the people he has come to care for?
Pam Withers is a former whitewater kayak instructor and raft guide, and her expertise shows. I’m not a kayaker, but the book’s whitewater passages are so full of strategy, muscle, and energy that you can almost feel the water’s spray as you hurtle down the page.
In her effort to familiarize readers with Columbian life and culture, Withers sometimes explains the obvious. Most American readers, after all, will not need to be told that empanadas are “meat and cheese pastries.” But the occasional authorial intrusions are a minor quibble with what is otherwise a compellingly readable tale of courage, sacrifice, and adventure.
I received an advance review copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewer program. This review was originally published in the News-Gazette on Sunday, August 28, 2011.