Dec 17 2007

Passage to Juneau

Published by at 9:05 pm under Books

by Jonathan Raban

We’re going to Alaska’s inside passage next summer and B picked up a couple of used books on Alaska including this one. As the titles implies, it is the story of a journey by sea to Juneau Alaska which is at the northern end of the Alaskan ‘panhandle’. The author who is British by birth and education lived in Seattle with a wife and daughter. He has taken up sailing and embarks on a solo voyage from Seattle up the coast of British Columbia to Juneau. Pretty straightforward idea for a travel book.

The subtitle of the book is “The Sea and Its Meaning” which is a bit heavy, but refers to what makes this book more interesting than a “first this and then that” sort of travel book. In addition to his own travels Raban blends in notes from and commentary on parts of Captain Vancouver’s exploratory trip up the same coast. That voyage on behalf of the British Navy occurred near the end of the 18th century. Along with notes on Vancouver’s voyage comes and the author’s reading of northwest coastal Indian legends and art. He provides a good description, using Vancouver’s voyage, of the how people distort and filter what they see to fit what they want to see. Vancouver an old fashioned English man was looking for and saw a setting to reproduce old England with gardens and lawns. His midshipmen, young men from wealthy or ‘noble’ English families, saw a wild, romantic nature to be admired. An Eden.

Most interesting to me were his observations on coast Indians. The watering down of their outlook and art by absorbing European myths and religion into the Indian’s culture. An example being totem poles: the earliest travelers did not see them. Later travelers who came after the initial traders provided iron tools and displayed carved bowsprits did see them: a composite of European and native? Another would be the change from a world view with a ‘continuum of ‘beings’ from ‘real’ to imaginary beings (not seen very often but talked about) to one with a dichotomy between people and god as in European religions.

In keeping with the subtitle, he makes the case that the sea was the overriding influence on the Indians. Their traditionally art with many lozenges of various images mirroring the reflections one sees on the water. They were at home on the sea and feared the land. Big nasty things could get you on either but the sea provided easier transport and food. In contrast to Europeans who viewed sea voyages as dangerously exploring the unknown, the seas was know and the land and mountains it contained were the feared unknown for the Indians. I’m sure there are experts that disagree with his reading, but the arguments seemed compelling to me.

I found the first two thirds of the book which contains most of the blend of old and new voyages to be the most interesting. After getting part way up the British Columbia coast, life intrude. A big storm has him flying back to Seattle for a break. While there, he receives a phone call from England that his father is dying, and a trip to England ensues and intrudes on the sea voyage book. The ‘ghost’ of his father then plays into the rest of the book. Overall, a very interesting read, and the author is a good observer of art, myths and people.

3 responses so far

3 Responses to “Passage to Juneau”

  1. JR fanon 17 Dec 2007 at 10:06 pm

    Hello there,

    Jonathan Raban is one of the finest writers I know.. all his books are like this (excluding the fiction) – full of brilliant observations elegantly expressed in a uniquely JR way – his sentences frequently demand re-reading for the sheer joy of it. You might like to try Old Glory: A Voyage Down the Mississippi (1998) or Coasting (both about being on boats) next – I’m sure once you’ve read these you’ll seek out all his other work. He is quite singular in this art . Just for your readers, here’s the list of non-fiction to date:

    The Technique of Modern Fiction: Essays in Practical Criticism, Edward Arnold (London), 1968, University of Notre Dame Press, 1969.

    Mark Twain: Huckleberry Finn, Barron’s, 1968.

    The Society of the Poem, Harrap (London), 1971.

    Soft City, Dutton (New York City), 1974.

    Arabia: A Journey through the Labyrinth, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1979.

    Old Glory: An American Voyage, Simon & Schuster, 1981.

    Coasting, Collins (London), 1986, Simon & Schuster, 1987.

    For Love and Money: Writing, Reading, Travelling, 1969- 1987, Collins, 1987, published as For Love and Money: A Writing Life, 1969-1989, Harper (New York City), 1989.

    God, Man, and Mrs Thatcher, Chatto & Windus (London), 1989.

    Hunting Mister Heartbreak: A Discovery of America, Collins, 1990.

    Bad Land: An American Romance, Pantheon (New York City), 1996.

    Passage to Juneau: a Sea and Its Meanings, Pantheon, 1999.


    JR fan (Australia)

  2. Chicagoon 18 Dec 2007 at 5:52 am

    Thanks for the run down of Raban’s work. I’ll have to try another.

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