Holly FitzGerald and her husband, Fitz, are living proof that our will to survive can help us overcome even the direst of circumstances. In 1973, the young couple set off on a South American honeymoon adventure that swiftly transformed into a nightmare when their plane crash-landed in a Peruvian penal colony. Stranded in a tiny town on the banks of the Rio Madre de Dios, they decide to take the locals’ advice to build a raft and travel down river to Bolivia. But when their raft gets thrown off course, Holly and Fitz find themselves lost, trapped, and quickly running out of time.
Decades later, Holly sat down to write a detailed account of their trip on the Rio Madre de Dios and their miraculous escape. The resulting book, Ruthless River, is the ultimate survival story. We were lucky enough to ask Holly a few questions about her writing process and life after near-death. Read on to learn more!
Reading Group Center: The events that you recount in Ruthless River took place decades ago. Why did you finally decide to sit down and tell your story? How do you think your telling of it would have differed had you written it immediately after your rescue?
Holly FitzGerald: I never thought I’d be the one to write the story. I was a social worker and therapist. I loved my work. It’s what I went to grad school to do. My husband, Fitz, was a reporter, so I assumed he would write it. In time, he did try to write the book but found that it was too difficult. He did not wish to relive the experience in the detailed manner necessary. Fitz has PTSD from fighting as a soldier in Vietnam (though early on the signs weren’t so apparent and PTSD wasn’t even a known diagnosis). This was aggravated by our experience in the jungle. He stayed busy with his career and so did I and we had a family to raise. Of course, the events in Ruthless River were in my head, not far away. Such events are life-changing. Over the years other writers told us that they’d like to write the story. Fitz said he didn’t want to write it. I loved books and the written word; I’d majored in English as an undergrad. When I underwent treatment for cancer I started to consider writing the book myself. But it was when my daughter spotted a brochure advertising a memoir-writing class that I got serious. I took to it “like a dog with a bone,” compelled to keep going.
I don’t know exactly how the book would have differed if I’d told it right after we survived. I suspect my thoughts would have been stunted, muddied, not fully formed. We often told it as an adventure story, without the feelings attached to it. I wanted to tell those feelings in the book. It took a long time to process the ordeal.
RGC: You describe your experiences so vividly in the book. How did you capture it so clearly after so many years? Is there one particular memory that stands out from all the rest?
HF: As you may imagine, those kind of experiences never really go away. They may be just under the surface. It was plain old hard work to go through them and see them clearly enough to write about them in detail. My journal was a big help to get me started. For different scenes I’d often sit in front of the computer and close my eyes and give myself a prompt like “what did the trees look like?” Or I’d be thinking of a scene in the car or the shower, walking along the beach. If I needed to feel the muddy water and couldn’t quite find the words, I’d walk into a muddy spot in an outlet of the inner harbor where I live and start telling myself (in my head!) to feel not only the mud but the fear of a caiman coming or the piranhas. I carried a notebook to write the wording for a description if it came to me. I was alert for the scenes I wanted to describe because anything might trigger what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it.
The times when I thought I was losing my husband stand out first in my mind, but all the memories are intense: swimming, being caught in quickmud, the bees, the tree. . .
RGC: What are the factors that you believe most contributed to your survival?
HF: Who is going to beat Mother Nature? No one. But hope and optimism, perseverance, willingness to endure and just keep trying new ideas; stamina, even when it was hard to believe there was any left; even arrogance against the odds; love for the other person and desire for his/her survival; hanging on, fighting, until luck or fate intervenes—it seems these are “factors” or attributes we used then and that could be used in many circumstances.
RGC: How did you and Fitz each cope in the aftermath of this ordeal?
HF: We were ecstatic to be alive and then home with our families. It was paradise. And yet ecstasy eventually dissolved into real life. Our families were gentle with us, not expecting too much. It must have been difficult to imagine what we’d been through just as it was for Fitz and me to digest it. The time we fought to survive was difficult for us to explain except in an adventurous kind of way. We had an easy, joyous summer being hosts to friends and family in beautiful Vermont. We didn’t have to cope with much. Fitz helped a friend build a room on my parents’ house. We lived in the moment, hiking, picnicking, being with our loved ones; it was everything we dreamed of. Yet I cried easily at times, was more sensitive to things. I didn’t know what was happening, considering I had fought so hard for life. And now life wasn’t perfect. Our country was in the early throes of Watergate. Our everyday amenities—that would have been beyond luxuries where we had been—were comforting, but it was a shock to me that we all took them so for granted—inside plumbing, running water. “Waste” wasn’t a word where we had been. Everything was recycled, long before the word “recycled” became a word known to me. Still, it was basically wonderful to be alive, just hard to take in.
At the end of the summer we didn’t know what to do: get jobs? And where? Our French friends suggested we carry on with our original intention—going around the world. It seemed daunting, but finding jobs, getting back into the working world of America seemed hard to cope with too. We chose to carry on with traveling around the world, meeting new people, seeing new cultures. It was the right thing for us. It helped us heal. We never regretted it.
RGC: Was writing this book a healing exercise for you?
HF: I didn’t begin writing Ruthless River to heal. If I had, I probably should have written the book far earlier. But, yes, in the long run, as I got deeper into it and searched for meaning, I believe the writing process was healing.
RGC: How did your children respond when you first told them about your experiences on the Madre de Dios?
HF: Our kids knew this story all their lives. Since they were so young and we observed our rescue date every year, they looked upon it almost as a fairy tale, family folklore. One of my daughters said, “It’s something I always knew. I bragged about it to my friends as a little kid, awed by it. It was magical, something to celebrate. I knew the basics and told them ‘my parents were in the jungle. They ate berries. . . ”. Our other daughter agrees. It wasn’t until they grew up that it took on a deeper, more powerful meaning to them.
RGC: Imagine you’re part of a book club discussing Ruthless River. What is a passage you would want to discuss with the group and why?
HF: One passage seems to be the crux of the story—it changed everything (besides the plane): Juan suggesting Fitz and Holly take a raft to their destination (p. 55–58). What does the group think about Juan? Was he convincing? Persuasive enough under the circumstances? Did he seem well intentioned, knowledgeable? Was the couple totally foolish? Were there other options that the couple could have taken? Should they have waited three months for another boat? Were they—Holly more so—naïve?
Another passage is still a question to me. Perhaps the group has their own answers or ideas: “A dense fog had lifted to reveal mountains I’d never known were there. Calmness settled inside me. ‘Fitz, we’ve had enough. . . God’s taking us out of here, today’” (p. 274). What was it that made me so sure that we were going to be “taken out of here, today”? I’d never experienced that “knowing” before.