August 2023

The Last Ranger

By Peter Heller
Review by
Peter Heller’s swift environmental thriller reminds us that humans are the most successful predators—but not the only predators.
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Ren Hopper, the protagonist of Peter Heller’s The Last Ranger, is a park enforcement ranger in Yellowstone National Park. He’s also a man often overwhelmed with righteous anger. We witness this first in the novel’s prologue, when he reacts with satisfying harshness to a couple whose careless speeding has resulted in the fatal injury of a bull bison. Through backstories we learn that Ren’s rage and anguish have something to do with his guilt about the death of his young wife, Lea, and his broken relationship with his mother, whose life was destroyed when she was accused of precipitating a mercy killing.

Even more alienated from human society is Hilly, Ren’s neighbor in the park employees’ cabins and his closest friend and possible love interest. Hilly, a researcher studying the park’s wolf population, loves wolves far more than people and spends most of her time in far ranges of the park, observing pack behaviors. 

Throughout the 20th century, wolves were eliminated from the park and much of the American West but were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995. Now, poachers have begun to target the wolves for the value of their fur. Hilly and Ren suspect a surly local trapper named Les Ingraham. Hilly, an excellent marksman, regards Les with murderous intent, especially after she has a near-death encounter with a leg trap. Les, of course, has his own backstory, which helps to explain the novel’s surprising end.

Peter Heller (The River) was an outdoor adventure writer before he became a novelist, and he displays a keen sensitivity to wild places. When describing wildlife and landscapes, he deploys the precision and cadence of Ernest Hemingway. Breaking through the pervasive thread of ranger routines—mundane encounters over coffee, directing traffic on overcrowded park roads—are dramatic encounters between privileged or naive tourists and wild animals, like the parents who position their daughter near an agitated moose for a photo op, seeming to think they are in a petting zoo. In a subplot, Heller also dramatizes another threat to our national parks: militias and business interests who want to turn public land into private holdings.

Heller’s swift environmental thriller reminds us that humans are the most successful predators—but not the only predators.

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The Last Ranger

The Last Ranger

By Peter Heller
ISBN 9780593535110

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