Monday, February 16, 2009

A Passage to Juneau by Jonathan Raban

I have been away for a while visiting the lovely island of Maui. I know it is a difficult job having to hang out in the sunshine in the Hawaiian Islands but I was happy to do it. We rented a condominium in Maalaea that was to die for! Not exactly inexpensive in the high season, $295.00 a night, but when compared to prices at Kaanapali and Lahaina it is very reasonable especially considering the quality of the condo. It is the Milowai Ocean Penthouse, #407. You can check out pictures of the condo at

Now that I have made everybody sick with the news of my very nice vacation we can go ahead and move on. Of course, you cannot go on a vacation without a great book to read. In my case I was able to kill two birds with one stone - please honey and have a book for Hawaii. My husband recommended that I read "A Passage to Juneau" a couple of months ago. We are amateur sailors and the book is about a man who sails his 34 foot sailboat from Seattle to Juneau, Alaska. My husband loved it and promised that I would too.

Well, he was right. The book is great. It was so riveting for me that sometimes it actually managed to draw my attention from the humpback whales playing in the bay in front of our condo, and that is saying something. Jonathan is an interesting fellow with a vocabulary that will make you wish you were carrying your dictionary with you. Try this one - cthonian.

The forest was the least of it. Above and beyond the treeline, Alaska looked like the work of a megalomaniac confectioner. In any other light but this freakish sunshine, its snowy barrenness would have appeared intimidating and oppressive. These were the forbidden mountains of Indian stories---a chthonian region to which unfortunate humans were occasionally abducted by terrible powers.

For the bewildered among us the definition of chthonian is "dwelling beneath the surface of the earth - nether regions" or "being of the underworld - infernal regions" according to Jonathan is saying that for the Indians the mountains were not beautiful but frightening and liable to kill you if you gave them a chance.

This book works for me on many levels as a reader. I majored in History in college and Jonathan intertwines the narrative of his journey with a lot of great historical stuff. He utilizes Captain George Vancouver's "Voyages" that describes the Pacific Northwest coast as it looked to the officers and sailors aboard the Discovery and Chatham in 1792. He also seriously explores Northwest Pacific Coast Indian lore. Jonathan at first seems harsh and overly critical in regard to white people's long held beliefs about the Indians and their traditions. But the author manages to squash and/or modify many of my previous assumptions in a way that is not negative to his subject.

The book is also chock full of scientific information. The author is clearly a renaissance man who takes an interest in everything around him. (If you need any further proof of that please note that he carries a microscope on board just so he can eyeball the tiny creatures who live in the water of the Puget Sound). He is fascinated with the way water moves, the way Dahl dolphins swim with the boat, and the depth of the sea underneath him to name just a few of his curiosities. The beauty of his writing is that he will make you interested in these things too.

And, of course, the author does not leave his own personal narrative out. During his trip his family is hit by a personal tragedy that calls him away for a few months. It also forces him to confront his own issues about growing up and the relationship he has with his parents. I sensed from his writing that he was less comfortable in this subject than in any other but that he still speaks in a sincere voice.

On a whole other level the book is great for me because I've actually sailed on some of these waters. I've woken up in a secluded bay in the San Juans to watch the sun rise, and viewed the dolphins race through the waves alongside the boat. I've sailed through the turbulent waters of Deception Pass and been scared witless even though we did fine. And I have enjoyed a glass of wine at sunset gunkholing in Shallow Bay on Sucia Island. These are fine things.

So whatever your interest whether it be sailing, Alaska, Indian lore, or the history of discovery, you will find something in this book for you. I'm notorious for reading books more then once and I'm pretty sure I'll be reading this one again. Hopefully by the light of a lantern rocking slowly in a cozy saloon somewhere out on the waters of the Pacific Northwest.

1 comment:

  1. I agree, completely! Raban masterfully paints the Northwest waterworld scene, and amazed me with his transitions from historical to current narrative of the passage to Juneau. The ending was sad for me.