Jan/Feb 2001 Book Reviews

Passage to Juneau: A Sea and its Meaning

Jonathan Raban
Picador, PanMacmillan (Oct. 2000) 453 pages
ISBN: 0 330 34629 6

reviewed by Ann Skea

"Rationalism deserts me at sea. I've seen the scowl of enmity and contempt on the face of a wave that broke from the pack and swerved to strike at my boat. I have twice promised God that I would never again put out to sea, if only He would, just this once, let me reach harbour."

Anyone who knows Jonathan Raban's writing will recognize his fluid facility with language, his humour and his ability to convey the feel of places and situations. He has lost none of his skill in this book and his love of odd characters and of the rich variety of human nature is much in evidence, too.

So many and so varied are the things which attract his attention, that it is not just the seascape and landscape and the creatures which inhabit these worlds which enrich his narrative, but history, art, poetry and much of life itself. Added to which, he travels the Inside Passage with a motley crew of explorers, fishermen, scientists, missionaries, Indians, tourists and family members, some living, some ghostly, all of whom bring their own moods and experiences to the journey. So many people aboard one small yacht seems like a recipe for disaster, and disasters do happen, but that is the nature of such journeys, or so it seems.

Raban's most constant companion is Captain Van: Captain George Vancouver, captain of HMS Discovery which was sailing the Inside Passage to Alaska in 1792. Vancouver was a clever technician, but an unpredictable and unpopular captain. Yet in spite of Captain Van's uninspiring prose, his temper and his habit of inflicting bloody floggings on his crew, Raban manages to find much that is of interest as he follows in the Captain's wake. Fortunately, too, there are more amiable companions to distract us along the way: a few of the early missionaries; a pair of young loggers who visit Raban's boat at Minstrel Island, talking about birds and finishing each others' sentences; the Walders who had escaped from a monotonous city life to the calm beauty of subsistence living at Potts Lagoon; Julia, Raban's beloved small daughter, to whom the book is dedicated; and Raban himself describing the terrors of fogs, whirlpools, storms and cruise-ship tourists, and offering vignettes of over-zealous customs officers, gossiping dawn crows, forraging bears and an engaging picture of Captain Van going "from village to village, earnestly asking for nookie" (read the book!).

Raban's digressions are as interesting as the journey itself. Discussing writing, he comments that Northwest nature writers like Barry Lopez see a different, tidier, more serious and numinous world to the one he sees. "Humour was not their line." Much as he admires the particularity of their "well informed gaze," he notes that he can't "join in their hymns" and after a few pages he grows restless and begins "to ache for more profane company." His own writing is certainly humorous and even profane, but there are serious passages, too. Amongst them, a well argued hypothesis about the watery origins of common motifs in traditional Indian art; and a well-founded analysis of the sea-orientated world-view of the early Indian tribes along this coast and the way in which this was misinterpreted by missionaries and explorers.

Half-way through the book, Raban's journey is broken by the sudden illness and death of his father. His account of this and his reminiscences and memories of his father give the book a different dimension. At the end of the book, too, when life deals him another unpleasant blow, the whole meaning of the book is retrospectively changed. What began as an amusing, anecdote-filled account of a journey made by a "timid, weedy, cerebral type" whose passion for the sea outweighs his fear of it, turns into an account in which the sea is a metaphor for life itself.

Raban, of course, is not the first writer to discover the metaphorical power of the sea, but his use of it is appropriately subtle and fluid. And the reader, too, is caught up in the metaphor. As in the Indian myths, beliefs and superstitions which Raban discusses, one is immersed in the story, busy negotiating the whirlpools and rapids, carefully acknowledging the sea monsters, aware of the malevolent humour of Nature, trying to read the water surface and fishing for the "glittering shoal""Then more of less unexpectedly" shit happens, and the catch you make you are totally unprepared for.

In all, Passage to Juneau: A Sea and its Meanings, is as rich and complex, simple and enjoyable, unexpected yet predictable as the sea itself. And Raban charts this journey in his own humorous, moving, thoughtful and inimitable, way.


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