Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings

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9780679442622: Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings
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"Raban is searching and compassionate. . . . And he is at all times eloquent."
-- Richard Ford

Following the overland triumph of Bad Land--whose prizes included the National Book Critics Circle Award--Jonathan Raban goes to sea.

The Inside Passage from Puget Sound to Alaska is winding, turbulent, and deep--an ancient, thousand-mile-long sea route, rich in dangerous whirlpools, eddies, rips, and races. Here flourished the canoe culture of the Northwest Indians, with their fantastic painted masks and complex iconography and their stories of malign submarine gods and monsters. The unhappy British ship Discovery, captained by George Vancouver, came through these open reaches and narrow chasms in 1792. The early explorers were quickly followed by fur traders, settlers, missionaries, anthropologists, fishermen, and tourists, each with their own designs on this intricate and haunted sea.

When Jonathan Raban set out alone in his own boat to sail from his Seattle home to the Alaskan Panhandle, he wanted to decode the many riddles and meanings of the sea: in Indian art and mythology, in the journals of Vancouver and his officers and midshipmen, in poetry and painting, in the physics of waves and turbulence. His voyage began as an intellectual adventure, but he soon found himself in deeper, more ominously personal waters than he had planned.
In this seaborne epic, Raban brings the past spectacularly alive and renders the present in a prose of sustained brilliance and humor. Exhilarating, panoramic, full of ideas, natural history, and mordant social observation, his journey into the wild heart of North America turns into a profound exploration of the wilderness of the human heart.

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British-born Jonathan Raban sets out on a passage from Seattle to Juneau in a small boat that is more a waterborne writing den, and as usual with the brilliant Raban, this journey becomes a vehicle for history and heart-stopping descriptions that will make readers want to hail him as one of the finest talents who's picked up a pen in the 20th century. The voyage through the Inside Passage from Washington's Puget Sound to Alaska churns up memories and stirs up hidden emotions and Raban dwells on many, including the death of his father and his own role of Daddy to his young daughter, Julia, left behind in Seattle. More than just a personal travelogue, however, Passage to Juneau deftly weaves in the stories of others before him--from Indians whom white men formerly greeted with baubles set afloat on logs, to Captain Vancouver, who risked mutiny on his ship when he banned visits with prostitutes, some of whom offered their services for bits of scrap metal. Pressed into every page are intimate descriptions of life at sea--the fog-shrouded coasts, the crackly radio that keeps him linked to the mainland, the salty marine air, and the fellow sailors who are likewise drawn by a life of tossing on water. While Raban successfully steers his boat to the desired port, readers ultimately discover that this insightful, talented sage is in fact emotionally in deep water and may not fully be captain of his own life. --Melissa Rossi

From the Publisher:


A conversation with Jonathan Raban, author of Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings

Q: You're a Brit living in America, writing passionately and brilliantly about this country. How did your kinship with the U.S. begin, and how has it evolved from book to book?
A: For "kinship" read "bewildered fascination." Oh, it began in infancy, in Norfolk, England in the last days of World War II. There was an American air force base just down the road from where we lived. Americans - larger in every way than the scrawny English after five years of wartime rationing - rode past our house in open armored cars, tossing sticks of gum from their PX , and the village kids scrabbled for them in the dirt. I wasn't a village kid, and to my enormous disappointment, my mother forbade me from joining the melee. But I have made up for that since. First, in my early teens, I was besotted by American rock music - Bill Haley and his Comets, Frankie Lymon, Elvis Presley... Then came American novels. Huckleberry Finn was a childhood favorite, then Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, then, when I was at university, the novels of Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, the young Philip Roth. The poems of Robert Lowell (whom I later came to know). These were liberating influences. Postwar British fiction and poetry seemed terribly dry by comparison to these wonderfully fluent, extravagant Americans. My first job - long before I had set foot in the U.S. - was teaching American literature at the University College of Wales, then at the University of East Anglia. So when I came to visit this country for the first time (in 1972, when I took up a visiting professorship at Smith College, in Northampton, Mass), I had been living in a richly populated imaginary America for a long time. I continue to live in that strange world now. I think that only the reader can judge how it has evolved in my books.

Q: You've traveled down the Mississippi in a 16-foot boat (Old Glory), roamed from place to place around the country in Hunting Mister Heartbreak, explored eastern Montana and western North Dakota in Bad Land. How do you choose your destinations? Where else in the U.S. would you like to write about?
A: Old Glory and Hunting Mister Heartbreak were books written (mostly) from England about a foreign land. But in Bad Land I was trying to write about home, trying to make imaginative sense of the lives of an earlier generation of European immigrants, using their experience to inform mine, and vice-versa. Going to Ismay, Montana wasn't a journey, or a destination, that I chose; it chose me, because my friend, like many people who finally found their way to Seattle, had come from there, and I wanted to borrow his family history for my own. If I could plant my feet in the shoes of his grandparents, and look out through their eyes, I thought I might be able to make better sense of my own situation here... I see Bad Land as the first book in a loose trilogy about living here in the Pacific Northwest; Passage to Juneau continues and elaborates the theme. The third book, a novel, will be set right here, in Seattle.

Q: Tell us how you came to write Passage to Juneau.
A: Bad Land was really a sea-story, about shipwreck, set a thousand miles inland on the dry prairies. Writing it, I came to see that there was another story I wanted to explore, really a land-story set at sea. Since 1990 (when I came to live in Seattle), I had been spending as much time as I could sailing around Washington and British Columbia, mostly on the waters of the Inside Passage, but also venturing out into the open Pacific, off the coast of Vancouver Island. The more I sailed, and sopped up the lore of our tricky local sea, the more I saw that the water here was a "place", as full of intricacy and character as any sweep of land. For the coastal Indians, the surface of the sea was their primary workplace - it was where they fished, fought their wars, traded goods, met their wives and husbands... They had names for every feature of the water - many more names for the sea than they had for the surrounding land. The cedar canoe was their equivalent of the horse and carriage, or the Ford Taurus. To understand the true history of the Northwest, the essential character of this landscape, you have to get into the mindset of a canoe-Indian, and learn to see the water as a place, with the forests and mountains as mostly undifferentiated space.
        So I needed to sail to Alaska in order to understand this other, watery dimension of my new home. I wanted to take my place in that floating cavalcade of Indians, white explorers, fishermen, missionaries, anthropologists, loggers, tourists, and everyone else for whom the water here has been important. I wanted to explore the many meanings of the sea by focusing on the sea in my own backyard - a sea providentially rich in history and significance.
        At the outset, I thought that writing a waterborne book, set along the 1000-mile length of the Inside Passage, would be a good way - as Bad Land had been - of putting down my own roots here, and making myself belong to this landscape. That was before I made the voyage - which, as it turned out, damned near uprooted me altogether...

Q: In Passage to Juneau, you write about your journey from Seattle to Alaska; Captain Vancouver covered the same territory in 1792-1794, a voyage that you describe vividly. Tell us about Captain Van, and his trials and tribulations.
A: My alter ego. Short, fat, unwell, pop-eyed, socially inadequate. I am intensely fond of him. Humanly, he was a dry stick; an old fogey at 34. He was saddled with a bunch of fashionable, upper-class midshipmen, who despised him. He was perfectly out of touch with the great movements of his time. The Romantic glory of wilderness quite passed him by. What he would have liked to discover here was a sort of far-western version of Middlesex, Kent, and Surrey. What he found was a country of hideous and gloomy mountains, ugly cascades, depressing forests, and a sea of baffling tides and ship-swallowing whirlpools. He was the Pacific Northwest's least likely immigrant...
        
But he supplies a wonderful pair of eyes for a writer to look out through - he's a far more interesting character than the young fashionables, who were able to see the Northwestern wilderness as the apotheosis of the Romantic Sublime.
        
"Sublime? Bah!" says Captain Van, whose invariable descriptive term for craggy, snowcapped mountains was "sterile". He was a brilliant navigator and map-maker, but grimly literal-minded when it came to people and landscape. In the book, he's a foil to everyone, from the midshipmen, to Wordsworth and Shelley, and John Muir, and me. I mustn't make him sound like a monster, for he's utterly sympathetic in his unhappiness -- and I think it was profound -- at finding himself here.

Q: Have you always been adventurous, the kind of person for whom travel and exploration are crucial to survival?
A: What? I think you've got the wrong writer. I am timid in the extreme. My travels, such as they are, are safe and unadventurous. I travel furthest and deepest in libraries, not over the water or over the ground. I've never climbed a proper mountain, never crossed an ocean under my own steam, or sail. I am sedentary and bookish by nature; a stay-at-home. I think you must have been thinking of Jon Krakauer.

Q: You capture the American psyche through its people and places. Do you find it easy to walk into a place you've never been and get people to open up? Is that just part of being a writer?
A: I do a lot of looking, and a good deal of listening. I never "interview" people. But being alone on a journey for any stretch of time makes one hungry for company, and I am always grateful for whatever scraps of conversation come my way. I don't go searching for "characters," but I enjoy chance encounters with anyone who happens to cross my path...not very many in Passage to Juneau, when three and four days would go by without my speaking to another soul. So I kept company with Captain Van, and Franz Boas, and long-dead Indian storytellers, and William Wordsworth...
        
But the question raises another one, about characters-in-a-landscape. I'm passionately interested in the relationship between the character one is and the landscape in which that character is formed. I know I'm a different person living here in Seattle from the man I used to be who lived in London, and I think that character is essentially fluid; it alters according to the circumstances in which it finds itself. I wonder what you'd become if I took you away from New York and installed you alone on an Alaskan island? It's an experiment that I'd like to conduct. So talking with people, seeing them in their natural habitat, as it were, I always find myself discovering a lot of their landscape in their character, and something of their character in the landscape itself. As an expatriate, living in a landscape that still feels subtly alien to me after nearly ten years, I'm acutely aware of this continual exchange between landscape and character, and of the gulf between people who are at home in their landscape - whether it's the Upper West Side or a fish-camp in British Columbia - and people like me, who are never quite at home anywhere.

Q: Where does your passion for sailing come from?
A: It's not a passion for sailing. I've always been fascinated by water, especially by the movements of water...ripples, eddies, waves, turbulence. Water in motion is the best model of chaos as physicists use that term. Look at a tide flowing through a narrow passage between islands - its rips, boils, whirlpools, overfalls - and you're face to face with chaos. There's something about the idea of a boat afloat on turbulent water that excites me, partly for its own sake, partly as a metaphor. As for sailing, it's mostly quiet, slow, meditative; an ideal way to study the water and watch the land. Hitching a free ride on the breeze, you feel a part of the nature that you sail through. A car detaches you from the landscape; a sailboat immerses you in it. My boat - a rather elderly ketch, 35 feet long, built in Sweden in 1972 - serves as an observation platform, a mobile library, a floating country cottage. It's my second home.

Q: Your knowledge of Northwest tribal art and mythology is impressive. How did you do the research, and was this uncharted territory for you before you started to write Passage to Juneau?
A: I've been looking at Indian art and reading Indian stories since I first came here in 1990. The penny suddenly dropped for me in the summer of 1990, when the boat was tied up in Victoria harbor, at the south end of Vancouver Island. I had spent most of an afternoon gazing at Indian masks and painted chests in the Royal British Columbia Museum. The weather was sultry and windless. When I went back to the boat I sat out in the cockpit, staring at the water, which was oily-calm, faintly rippled by the leftover wakes of float planes and motor boats. Fragmentary reflections kept on dissolving and reforming in the mirror-surface of the water, and I realized that I'd spent all afternoon looking at an art of watery reflections just like these: the Kwakiutl Indians were representing life as it was reflected by the ripples and wavelets of their native sea... Since then, I've haunted places like the Museum of Natural History in New York and the Menil
Collection in Houston, in pursuit of this stylized, extraordinarily dramatic maritime art of the Northwest coast. I don't think of it as "research." I do it for my own pleasure. With Indian stories ("myths" is a dubious word for them), it's been a little different. I'm a literary critic by training, and I was fascinated by the structural oddity of the stories collected by Boas and others; their version of narrative - of what happens when, and how - struck me as alien and bizarre. So I tried to learn to read them, not as anthropologists do, milking them for their encoded information about the culture, but as a sympathetic critic, getting in tune with their world, listening for subtexts and ironies. They figure importantly in the book.

Q: I'm not sure what kind of book Passage to Juneau is. Is it a memoir, a travel book, a social history? What is it?
A: Those damned categories! Luckily, they're more of a concern for librarians than they are for writers, or for readers. I've always been interested in books that slip and slide between the genres. Like Bruce Chatwin's Songlines - which was published as a novel in England, but under the non-fiction rubric of "Australia - description and travel" in the U.S. Or Thomas Kenneally's Schindler's Ark, published here as History, but which in England won the Booker Prize for Fiction. Or, most recently, that lovely book by W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, which you could label as a travelogue, or a personal memoir, or a meditation on English and German history. It's all of those things, but Sebald calls it "a novel," for want of a better word. Passage to Juneau is like that - a braid of memoir, history, travel, anthropology, art and literary criticism...all of those things, and none of them, at the same time. What I hope is that it is a lucid narrative, and to hell with the genres.

Q: You dedicate your book to your daughter Julia; we met her in Passage to Juneau, and seemed like a curious and adventurous three-and-a-half year old. Has Julia taken up sailing yet?
A: Not with quite the avid enthusiasm that I'd like to see. She'll be seven in November, and she has omnivorous social appetites. I have to fill the boat with other people before she really enjoys it. I'm reassured to see that she hasn't inherited my eccentric taste for solitude.

Q: What's next for Jonathan Raban?
A: A book set in Seattle, to be published as a novel. I began as a fiction writer, but haven't written a novel since 1985, when Foreign Land came out. The novel has always been the quintessential mixed genre, boiling up the real and the imaginary in the same pot. So there's a lot of reality in the book I'm working on. Seattle is a real - or at least a virtual - city. Bill Gates - I believe -exists. And so do people like Nathan Myrhvold and Jeff Bezos. They'll be in the book, rubbing shoulders on equal terms with people you won't find in any phone book, and who are quite unknown to the I.R.S. and the Social Security Administration.

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Other Popular Editions of the Same Title

9780679776147: Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings

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ISBN 10:  0679776141 ISBN 13:  9780679776147
Publisher: Vintage, 2000
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9780330346283: Passage to Juneau: a sea and its meaning

Picador, 1999
Softcover

9780330346290: Passage To Juneau

Picador, 2000
Softcover

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