In February of 1973, Holly Fitzgerald and her husband, Fitz, left the United States to embark on a yearlong honeymoon across South America. Their plan was to backpack across Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, filing travel stories for a Connecticut newspaper. Five months into their trip, when their plane crash-landed into a Peruvian penal colony, their quest for adventure took a very different turn. Ruthless River tells the story of the twenty-six days that Fitzgerald and her husband were stranded on a raft on the Madre de Dios River, largely without food or water, unable to swim to safety or to call for help. As their journey becomes increasingly dangerous and their physical safety ever more precarious, Fitzgerald offers a poignant portrait of a young marriage and a meditation on the human will to survive.
I first saw Fitzgerald tell the story of this harrowing ordeal at a standing-room-only book event near her home in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts. There is something wonderfully incongruous about watching Fitzgerald, an elegant lady in her early 70s, tell the story of how she survived a plane crash, fled a penal colony, and then convinced her husband to help her make a raft out of logs in order to navigate five hundred miles down the mighty Madre de Dios river.
Fitzgerald and I met to discuss her writing process at her home, where the shelves are filled with objects from her travels and her four young grandchildren are often underfoot. As we spoke, her husband’s Corona typewriter rested on the dining room table, along with the two journals that Fitzgerald kept during her trip—stained by water, dog-eared, and still legible, essential documents that made it possible for her to re-inhabit this story forty years later.
—Sadia Shepard for Guernica
Guernica: You’ve said that for many years you didn’t think that you’d be the one to write this story. Why did you think that it might be someone else, and why did you feel ready to tell this story now?
Holly Fitzgerald: I thought it would be my husband, Fitz. I figured he would want to do it. He was a poet, a journalist. And he did try to do it. But I think, ultimately, that it was too close. Fitz had PTSD from his time in Vietnam, and the material was too difficult. Over the years we met several people who told us that they wanted to tell this story—a reporter that my husband met in the courtroom, an adventure writer I met at our local library. I wanted to do it. I just didn’t know how to go about it.
Guernica: What was the catalyst to tell this story now, in this form?
Holly Fitzgerald: Several years ago I was going through chemotherapy for breast cancer and I took some time off of work. An experience like chemo forces you to confront your own mortality. I thought: If I’m going to do it, this is the time to do it. I started writing about the jungle. I didn’t really know what I was going to do with it, but I do remember my daughter Aiden coming in while I was at the computer. I was describing the jungle—the details of the smells and what the air felt like. It wasn’t a particular scene; it was just an exercise to get myself thinking about it. I think Aiden had just finished her MFA and she said, “That’s good, put some more of the sensory aspects into it.” I was just starting out. I realized that if I wanted to do this, I would have to learn how. I went back to my journals. There I had recorded every detail of what we ate, what we dreamed of eating, the food and belongings we lost at many points along the way. I really relied on my journals from that time to structure the story, and I tried to stick to the accuracy of what I had recorded.
Guernica: I’m intrigued that this is a story that you have held on to for decades, yet the writing process seems like one of discovery. Did you need to discover the story again as you wrote it?
Holly Fitzgerald: Although it was a story that I’d carried around for so long, the process itself felt like a discovery. I was writing individual chapters, and I didn’t know yet where they might fit in the narrative, but the story just kept going. If I thought of something—a metaphor, an image—I would jump up and run down to my computer in the middle of the night, or jot it down in a notebook on my bedside table. It was a kind of an eruption once I got going with it. It started taking over my life.
I often began writing early in the morning, and I felt I was stealing part of the day before anything came alive, before the neighborhood woke up, before anyone was driving. That’s a wonderful feeling, to feel that you have that moment when nobody needs you—it’s your moment to do whatever you want. In those early mornings I would think: This is my time. Then I would go teach. I was teaching at a local community college, and I would tell my students about my progress in order to help keep them motivated. I would tell them—I have my goal. I’m writing my story. My students would ask me every year: “Well, is it done yet?”
Guernica: Like many people, I was riveted by the pacing of Ruthless River and how you sustain the momentum and tension of your story. A consistent comment that readers make is how fast they read the book. Readers often say that they tear through it in two days, three days. Is that surprising to you?
Holly Fitzgerald: I guess it is surprising to me when I hear that, mostly because it took me a long time to write it. I suppose it’s like the metaphor of going up the river. You slog and slog and slog, writing. Going up that river took so long, but our return took fifteen minutes. During many parts of this process, I was learning, revisiting, trying to get the story just right. It’s a wonderful feeling when you’re going down the river. People say to me, “Oh, I read it so fast.” And I think—that was six years!
Guernica: Perhaps the pacing feels unremitting because the Madre De Dios is such a persistent adversary. The river is a vibrant, strong character in the book.
Holly Fitzgerald: It all starts with her. I decided to personify the river in the book because it was a very intimate relationship. We were fighting against her to survive. Of course there were other elements that were present too—the storms, the jungle, the animals, nature itself. But once we were trapped, it was us against her.
Guernica: Your attention to detail in the book is painstaking and vivid. You often describe minute details of the different efforts you took each day to try new modes of escape and survival—from swimming through sinking mud to searching for edible berries. You’ve described how your journal was an integral part of your writing process. What are some other strategies that you used to hone the details of those passages?
Holly Fitzgerald: There’s a small harbor near our house in Massachusetts, and sometimes when I was writing, I would wade out from the little sandy beach into the mud there. When I wanted to get that feeling of the mud trying to suck me down. I just thought, I’ll go into the sensual. I let the mud go up to my knees, or my thighs, and asked myself: What am I feeling? During excessive humidity I would make myself stay with that feeling, the sweat pouring down, so I could try to find the right words.
Guernica: Throughout the book, you portray a sense of continuous, cumulative loss. First you lose familiar settings, then contact with other people, then food and clean water, then your dream of reaching your destination, then, increasingly, your physical strength. Can you talk about the theme of loss in the book, and how this emerged as you were writing? Each loss seems like a precursor, or a possible foreshadowing, of the unimaginable loss that you don’t want to face—that you might lose Fitz.
Holly Fitzgerald: To represent each loss we experienced, I followed along with my diary, trying to maintain the accuracy of each day, how much food we had lost, how much we had left. But I knew that my biggest fear, the biggest danger, was the prospect of losing Fitz. The danger was apparent in his face. I couldn’t see myself. But seeing him—he was so strong, and to see him slowly disintegrating was harder than what I was experiencing. Yes, I could feel the pain of hunger. I was lethargic. But seeing the physical changes in my husband made me realize that I might lose him.
Guernica: At different parts in the book, you describe different images and ideas that sustain you through the ordeal of being trapped: the family photograph you carry with you, memories of home, the food you and Fitz fantasize about making. Then there’s a moment, which feels like a kind of epiphany, where you become convinced that you’re going to become a mother. This belief that you are going to have a child begins to nourish you, to comfort you. What role do you think your desire to become a mother played in your survival?
Holly Fitzgerald: I wrote in my journal: “I want a child.” I was writing it in the present. We hadn’t eaten in a long time. So it didn’t make sense physically. But it made sense for hope. It was a real feeling of strength when I realized that. Because I wasn’t one that was thinking, Oh, I’ve got to have children when I get married. We’d talked about it, but never about when it might happen. When you’re in your twenties, life feels like a big expanse out there. And suddenly, when we were in the middle of this, there wasn’t that big expanse anymore. It made me realize, and I imagine Fitz too—we are young to be dying—so what do we want? And that was the most important thing. It was clarifying.
Guernica: It was exciting for me to read a passage that portrays a woman’s desire to become a mother as euphoric. Instead of thinking of motherhood as existing in opposition to a woman’s other desires and ambitions, something that might pull her away from the life she wants to make, you frame the desire to be a mother as life affirming, sustaining. I think all too often the conversation around motherhood on the page sets up a woman’s life as one that is fundamentally in conflict with itself.
Holly Fitzgerald: That’s part of what I felt—that motherhood was a kind of holy thing. That maybe it has not gotten the credit it should for some time. It is not something that men can do. We can carry a child and bring it into the world. It should be valued. Women should be proud.
Guernica: What role did the story of your survival play in your life as a mother? Did you tell your daughters different versions of the story as they grew up?
Holly Fitzgerald: Every year, we celebrated the day that we were saved. Fitz and I decided we would do that the very day that we were saved. In the scene we say, “Let’s always celebrate this as a kind of Thanksgiving.” To our kids, it became known as “Raft Day.” When they were little, we just had the same simple meal that we were given when we were saved: oranges, rice, and fish. And we would tell our daughters a little more of the story each time. Kids don’t see the trauma. To them it was an adventure. On the fortieth anniversary of our rescue, my elder daughter Megan and her husband hosted a wonderful surprise party to celebrate Raft Day. It’s an important day in our family.
Guernica: I’m interested in the stories we each tell ourselves about who we are, and how those stories get passed down and become part of our personal mythology. How has the story changed over the years, or changed you? Have there been times when you’ve told it in different ways?
Holly Fitzgerald: For many years, we told it as a kind of Mark Twain story. It can be told in a way that is funny. I remember just a few days after we arrived home, my dad brought some people back to the house to meet us. I realize now that we must have been experiencing a kind of culture shock, and that my dad was probably trying to distract us. We told these guests the story lightly, and I remember thinking, It’s like a circus. It was easier to tell that way, and I think it was easier on the listener. One of the things that an experience like this teaches you is to live in the moment, to cherish it. There were times—especially after we came home, and then began to travel again—when we wanted to be where we were, not to dwell on the past.
Guernica: Now that the story of your survival exists in the world, it will have its own life. Is that a relief to you?
Holly Fitzgerald: It is a relief. Because this time I told the story more deeply. Of course I loved to have people laugh, and the fact that I could make them laugh is wonderful. The thing is, I don’t think I ever really told it seriously, except to my closest friends when we first came back. It was traumatic, so I was talking it out. But then, for many years, it was a matter of packing it up and bringing it out as an amusing tale. So this is a kind of release, to tell the story as it really was.