A Solitary Voyage

Passage to Juenau  by   Jonathan Raban,

435 pp. Random House 1999  ....   reviewed 27 July 2002 by David P. Stern


      A simple recipe: find an interesting subject--location, community, event, person--bring yourself close to it, open your eyes, ears and notebook, and once the story is captured, write and publish.

      Yes, it requires an articulate writer, undeterred by obstacles, one able to smell out good stories, locate interesting persons, make them talk, and then frame it all in scintillating prose. Not a job for everyone, but when done right, the results are delightful. John McPhee was a master of this genre, and both Robert Kaplan and Richard Preston were just as good, if not as prolific. Jonathan Raban's "Passage to Juneau" is in their league.

      The son of a British clergyman, Raban loves and respects the sea. In "Old Glory" he sailed solo the length of the Mississipi, and here he does the same for the "Inside Passage," the tortuous route through channels and narrow passages from Seattle to Juneau in Alaska's panhandle. This is the route nowadays taken by an increasing number of luxury cruise liners, giant floating hotels, but Raban's view, from a small sailboat, is much more intimate and penetrating. Cruise passengers see snowy peaks, distant cliffs and thick forests, a picture-card scenery unrolling before their eyes--that is, unless rain and fog blot it out, in which case one can always find entertainment below decks. Raban sees dark swirling tides, channeled by rocky mazes to form river-like flows, even waterfalls. Viewed at close range, the forests are gloomy and threatening, confining any settlement to a narrow strip of shore.

      It is a harsh country. Scattered settlements survive, and their hard-working men and women scratch an uncertain existence from timber and fisheries. Fishing in particular is hard-pressed, as salmon populations are depleted and canneries close: some villages remain on the map in name only, and when Raban looks for them, he only finds decaying docks and rotting houses, in the process of being reclaimed by the forest. Others hang on, and a few try to tap the new prosperity brought by cruise ships, replacing the rough but honest local culture with gentrified entertainment and a distorted image of the "noble savage."

      Unlike the tourists, Raban knows the actual Indian lore as recorded by early explorers. In Indian legends both sea and forest are ruled by terrifying monsters, and those legends rarely have happy endings. They also contain sexual scenes so lurid that anthropologists reporting them switched to Latin, to keep out non-academic readers.

      Raban sails here through rugged passages carved by glaciers, surprisingly deep. Yet they also have dangerous rocks to trap the unwary, reaching almost (but not quite!) to the surface. If that were not enough, uprooted tree-trunks wander through the currents, barely visible and a menace to navigation--not to the giant cruise liners, perhaps, but certainly to Raban's little boat, which luckily gets away with just one minor collision. Riding low in his sailboat also allows Raban to understand the tension and uncertainty experienced by the explorers who first mapped these waters, by George Vancouver's 1792 expedition which he describes in parallel with his own.

      Poor Vancouver! Raban obviously does not like him very much. He knows the history of that voyage of exploration, because quite a few other participants also kept notes, and later published them. Vancouver had sailed with Captain Cook and his name is now attached to a large, important island and to two prominent cities, one in Canada and one in the US, but Raban reveals him as a chubby man in poor health, who alienated himself from crew and officers alike, and who maintained discipline by frequent floggings. One Northwest Indian, he tells, approached Vancouver and begged to be allowed to accompany him back to England, but later fled in horror having witnessed a sailor being flogged. Yet it was also a dangerous voyage, burdened by the necessity of exploring every inlet and strait, just to make sure (by orders of the admiralty) that none contained a miraculous "north-west passage," a shortcut between Atlantic and Pacific.

      Thus the book is a travelogue on many levels--in time as well as across geography, and in other dimensions too, for Raban is a well-read intellectual. Its subtitle is "the sea and its meanings," and Raban also finds time to reflect on the poet Shelley's love of sailing, which led to his drowning in 1816 off the coast of Italy, and on the romantic view of nature. which Shelley had tried to promote and which Vancouver utterly lacked.

      And not least, on a personal level. A first-hand account, leading the reader vicariously through a journey, usually keeps the narrator on the periphery, to minimize distractions from the main topic. Personal events which interfere with the planned trip are often omitted, and gaps caused by such omissions are smoothed over. Jonathan Raban chooses to incorporate them into his narrative. Even trimmed and modified, they enrich the book in yet another dimension, and by the end, the dedication in front of the book--"For Julia"--takes on a new, unexpected meaning.

      You might have guessed by now that this is not a book to be skimmed in a hurry. It is best savored in small portions, allowing its encounters, emotions, scenery, atmosphere and history to sink in. If you plan a tourist cruise on the Inside Passage to Alaska, this is one to take along. Or, much better, read it beforehand, which will leave you more time to observe the landscape through which you pass. Then, as you stand at the railing and watch this land--forbidding, yet rich in overtones--you will begin to understand what you see.


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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol)phy6.org .

Last updated 27 July 2002