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Passage to Juneau (Jonathan Raban, 1999)

Check for this book.

ISBN 0-6794-4262-6


Further Reading

By the Same Author

Similar Writing


Another of Raban's sailing books, this one describing his trip by sail-boat (though, in retrospect, he seemed to spend most of the trip under engine power) from Seattle to Juneau. Much of his journey traces the route followed by Vancouver in his ship, Discovery, around 1790. Raban recounts numerous extracts from journals kept by the crew and Vancouver himself, adding another and interesting dimension to an essentially uninteresting voyage. But there is no denying the man's writing ability, however unpromising the material – such as surviving the sudden influx of tourists when one of the regular cruise ships stops by Ketchikan (and incidentally revealing to us a glimpse of his secret fetish for hyphens):

‘A woman in the crowd said to her husband, ‘We really need another day. There’s so much to see!’
‘Excuse me!
‘I wriggled through.
‘It was no-go at the little one-storey Tongass Museum. That had been stormed long ago, and a line of couples trailed down the sidewalk, queuing for admission. My view of Ketchikan was quickly changing: I found myself beginning to think fondly of the Potlatch Bar as a civilised haven from the slow-crawling mob.
‘I reached Creek Street, the southernmost point of tourist Ketchikan before the cannery workers and fishermen got the town more or less to themselves. The creek was a walled-in tidal drain overhung by a row of nondescript wooden cottages, once bars and whorehouses but now reclaimed for the picturesque by several coats of white, pale-blue, and coral-pink paint. Most were gift shops; one, Dolly’s House, had become a museum of quaint, old-time prostitution.
‘All the videocams were trained on Dolly’s House, which was meant to conjure rambunctious times in Historic Alaska, when whores weren’t whores but ladies of the night. …
‘Had the cameras swivelled through 135, they would have found that Creek Street, far from being dead and gone, had merely relocated its businesses a few yards to the south. Instead of filming waxworks, the cruise-ship passengers could easily have shot the real thing, in unalluring close-up. For $50 or so, they could’ve got laid. That would have been a worthwhile story.’ – pp. 372-373

The pivotal chapter, for me, was Potts Lagoon where, after a sluggish beginning, the journey at last seems to come to life.

'By day, the paths of Captain Van's grim labyrinth would be dotted with small boats, moving slowly – on the foredeck of each one, a lightly clad figure with a video camera, capturing the majestic sweep of the precipice, the awesome plunge of the waterfall. I'd once sailed to desolation sound in August, and fled; it was uncomfortably like Hampton Court on a sweltering long weekend.' – pp.182-183

I became a little apprehensive when, near the beginning of the book, Raban mentions James Gleick's book, Chaos, among his on-board library. Sure enough, within a chapter or two, fractals and strange attractors begin to pop up among the islands and shoals. But fortunately this is fairly unintrusive. What do become annoying, however, are Raban's excursions into lay anthropology. His analysis of the native coastal people's characteristic art style is infuriatingly facile; by contrast the following excerpt is rather benign:

'Between familiar creatures like the bear and the mink, and fantastic ones like the thunder-eagle and the double-headed flying sisiutl, there stretched a smooth continuum of increasing rarity, ranging from seen-most-days-by-ordinary-people to seen-very-infrequently-and-only-by-persons-with-special-gifts. The sasquatch lay somewhere mid-continuum, and quite often was glimpsed by lay observers. Beyond it lay the pantheon of even stranger beings; animals capable of instant self-transformation, and likely to wreak havoc in human affairs. ... The art and stories of the Northwest Coast, with their marvellous beasts and beings, reflect the mindset of a people who spent a great deal of their time peering apprehensively into the dark wood and the hidden depths of the sea – and saw their fears take monstrous shapes, in that region lying just beyond the limit of normal twenty-twenty vision.' – pp.300-301

Half way through his journey north, Raban's father is taken seriously ill, the family makes the trip to England to be with him through to the end, the death, the arrangements, and so on. Raban describes all of this in meticulous – indeed, retentive – detail. I can't say what the effect is on the book: it is certainly diversionary but perhaps it actually saves the thing from becoming a monotonous soapbox pontification of pop anthropology: American Indian culture according to Raban.

There is an interesting disconnect buried away on page 390 – in which Dawn and Barry suddenly become, during the course of a brief conversation, Linda and Derek. Most strange. (This episode calls to mind the peculiar translocation in Raban’s earlier book, Coasting, where the action unaccountably shifts from London to Scotland and back again.)

I am not sure how Raban communicates the ending of the book – perhaps it is just the name of the final chapter which gives the game away – but by half way through I knew how the book would finish. What seemed most surprising, really, is that he did not guess it himself....

Recommendation: Recommended.

Look and Feel: My edition is the usual matt-finish hardback.

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