Unanticipated Borders (Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings by Jonathan Raban)

Readers don’t have to be sailors to enjoy this travelogue through the Inside Passage where we sail and cross unanticipated borders. For those “reading as writers” I make two suggestions: First, consider how Raban weaves two distinctly different themes in one story; second: those who are writing historical stories can learn much by noting how Raban draws upon others’ experiences and interpretations and how he weaves these with his own to create a nuanced narrative.

Ostensibly, Passage to Juneau is a sailing memoir that Jonathan Raban makes from Seattle, through Canadian waters, to Juneau Alaska. Readers are taken along on a journey that follows the route of George Vancouver who captained the surveying expedition of 1791-95 for Britain and for whom Vancouver Island and the city on the mainland are named. The Passage challenges. Raban notes that “The Inside Passage to Alaska, with its outer fringes and entailments, is an extraordinarily complicated sea-route, in more ways than one.” It’s a passage he makes alone, leaving his wife and young daughter alone in Seattle. For company, he fills bookshelves on his 35-foot sailboat with history, lore and myth written by anthropologists and sailor-writers. As he prepares to leave land, he candidly writes:

I am afraid of the sea.…I’m not a natural sailor, but a timid, weedy, cerebral type, never more out of my element than when I’m at sea.

Yet for the last fifteen years, every spare day that I could tease from the calendar has been spent afloat, in a state of undiminished fascination with the sea, its movements and meanings. When other people count sheep, or reach for the Halcion bottle, I make imaginary voyages—where the sea is always lightly brushed by a wind of no more than fifteen knots, the visibility always good, and the boat never more than an hour from the nearest safe anchorage.

He sets off, hugging the coast.

This is my second Jonathan Raban travel story. A few years ago I read Arabia Through the Looking Glass and looked forward to Passage to Juneau, anticipating more of the same. Rabin takes a novelists’ approach, creating skilfully drawn characters and keen insight into people and places. He merges historical interpretations and impressions with his own insights and style, but here he’s a little more acerbic than curmudgeon.

Opening this book, I expected a sailing story, and sailing is the focus of the first half of the story, but with “The Rite of Passage” chapter, the story shifts. The mood swings to a far more personal and emotionally intense one, no longer an intellectual or an observer stance. It’s true, we set out with a plan and life intervenes. The story began as one thing and ended as another. It’s also true that in the first chapter, Raban provides a hint about the change to come:

 I had a boat, most of a spring and summer, a cargo of books, and the kind of dream of self-enrichment that spurs everyone who sails north from Seattle. Forget the herring and the salmon: I meant to go fishing for reflections, and come back with a glittering haul. Other people’s reflections, as I thought then. I wasn’t prepared for the catch I eventually made.

Despite this, I wasn’t prepared for what are essentially two distinct stories.

Jonathan Raban’s travel writing is insightful and his use of language a pleasure to read earning him many plaudits. But in someone with lesser skills, I doubt the starkness of the contrast between the themes would have worked.

For those who are “reading as writers,” Raban’s story provides a cautionary tale. Although both halves are memoir, and the story begins and ends with sailing, the two themes differ in mood, tone, and focus. The sailing memoir loses coherence; the meaning Rabin finds does not derive from the sea as suggested in the memoir’s subtitle. At times, I felt as if Raban had a contract to write about following Vancouver’s log through the Inside Passage, but then life intervened and gave him passion as opposed to an intellectual pursuit to focus upon.

There is also a lesson from what Raban does very well. Those who are writing historical stories can learn much by noting how Raban draws upon others’ experiences and interpretations and how he weaves these with his own to create a nuanced narrative.

42 Passage to Juneau

Available through your local bookstore or online: Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings

Mabel Means Loveable (H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald)

If you read for pleasure, enjoy H is for Hawk, a fascinating, award-winning memoir about a falconer who trains a goshawk. If you “Read as a Writer,” keep four questions in mind: 1) how the first paragraph works to set the stage for what follows; 2) how Macdonald enlarges and layers the memoir from a narrow “I” focus, and 3) how she tackles challenging issues, and 4) how she uses hawks and falconry as metaphor.

After Helen Macdonald’s father dies suddenly, she begins a downward spiral. The death of a loved one is something we all face and, although there are recognized stages to the experience, we each find our own way through the labyrinth of loss. Of grief and madness, she writes, “I knew I wasn’t mad mad…[but then] I started dreaming of hawks all the time…raptor, meaning ‘bird of prey.’ From the Latin raptor, meaning ‘robber,’ from rapere, meaning ‘seize.’” The dreams led to an obsession: “I dreamed of the hawk slipping through wet air to somewhere else. I wanted to follow it.” Macdonald turns to a goshawk, a raptor with a reputation for being the most challenging to train—even for the experienced falconer she is.

Macdonald names her hawk Mabel. “Mabel. From amabilis, meaning loveable, or dear. An old, slightly silly name, an unfashionable name.… There’s a superstition among falconers that a hawk’s ability is inversely proportional to the ferocity of its name.” She wants Mabel to be ferocious. Through Mabel, Macdonald becomes goshawk, becomes wild. The goshawk becomes a metaphor, a spiritual guide.

During the training, she turns to all she’s learned from childhood stories, to her experience as a falconer and to falconer friends, as well as to T.H. White’s The Goshawk and The Sword in the Stone.  Of The Goshawk, she says that “White made falconry a metaphysical battle [like] Moby-Dick or The Old Man and the Sea….” Macdonald says of herself and White’s The Sword in the Stone:

“I was turning into a hawk.

I didn’t shrink and grow plumes like the Wart in The Sword in the Stone, who was transformed by Merlyn into a merlin as part of his magical education. I had loved the scene as a child. I had read it over and over again, thrilling at the Wart’s toes turning to talons and scratching on the floor, his primary feathers bursting in soft blue quills from the tips of his fingers. But I was turning into a hawk all the same.

Macdonald weaves White’s biography into her memoir. For more than a few pages, H is for Hawk, seems more White than Macdonald, but always relevant to her state of mind and passage through bereavement.

She also reflects on a 13th century poem called Sir Orfeo, “a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and the underworld by way of traditional Celtic songs about the otherworld, the Land of Faery. In Celtic myth that otherworld is not deep underground; it is just one step aside from our own.” She links this with the…

Ability of hawks to cross borders that humans cannot is a thing far older than Celtic myth, older than Orpheus—for in ancient shamanic traditions right across Eurasia, hawks and falcons were seen as messengers between this world and the next.

Macdonald constantly probes literature and raptor lore, seeking understanding while revealing truths she only half realizes at the time of her “not mad mad” period. For nature lovers, she takes us into fields near the edge of woods in weather that only a diehard falconer would venture. She also debates the moral issue of keeping a hawk whose purpose is death.

We witness the deterioration of her physical and mental life after her father’s death and her escape into wildness. Through memories and Macdonald’s reflections on falconry literature and practice, we come to see how she copes with loss and also how she grows and changes.

If you are a writer, important lessons can be gleaned by reading H is for Hawk. In addition to enjoying a fascinating story…

  1. Look closely at the all-important first paragraph, noticing how Macdonald provides a setting, the first-person narrative, the idea of a journey, and her purpose which is to see goshawks. See how relevant this is to what follows.
  2. Think about how she weaves her story into T.H. White’s biography, and more generally, how she uses literature and lore to enlarge the narrative, lifting it above a potentially maudlin or nostalgic ramble.
  3. Nature writers might want to think about how she handles issues of wild and morality, and
  4. Think about the role metaphor plays throughout the story.

H is for Hawk is a winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize, and it was the COSTA Book of the Year 2014. It’s a good read. Enjoy.

H is for Hawk.jpg

Available through your local bookstore or online: H is for Hawk