According to the romantic lore of many cultures, the sea is a big, mysterious place to which we have to bow deferentially. According to its whim, the sea can either gently rock sway or disastrously capsize any vessel. Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings is another installment in the sea and nature genre by Jonathan Raban. What could he hope to achieve in the treacherous territory of Neptune, Moby-Dick and even Jaws? Raban finds that a great deal of meaning and internal insight remains to be discovered.
This is not a shallow adventure novel, nor is it a tale of moral rebirth through a watery baptism. Raban brings along the outdoor experience found in his successful Bad Lands as he embarks on a solitary journey along the Inside Passage, a route that starts from the yuppie lakefront properties of Puget Sound and winds through an archipelago up to Juneau, Alaska. Raban, a British chap from Seattle, desires to "meditate on the sea, at the sea." Rather than dealing with dangerous sharks and storms, Raban spends more time drinking champagne and maintaining his classic book collection aboard his cozy, quite luxurious vessel. Nothing particularly shocking or dramatic happens to him at sea, but nevertheless Raban has produced a pensive piece about his immediate family and the people from the past with whom he finds a connection via the cold waters of the Northwest.
Initially, though, it is difficult to determine Raban's individual perspective and intentions. He says that he means to "go to sea in my own boat for the going's sake," but this agenda can often seem less sincere. At times throughout his musings, we wonder whether he planned his itinerary solely for the purpose of writing this book, or that the book evolved from unexpected sensations encountered along the voyage. The conversations with local seafarers range from dryly humorous to patronizing. Along his journey north, Raban often rests at small towns or hamlets. Many are sleepy, quirky, and closely tied with the fishing industry. Although he does meet many Northern Exposure stereotypes, he does interact with some fascinating people who are a sharp departure from the blase urbanites of his own city. Not surprisingly, Raban conveys a self-aware voice by virtue of his scholarly British origins and his trendy Seattle. He can never completely understand and empathize with the locals and their customs, and as a result his writing reflects an awkward balance of a National Geographic anthropologist and a new kid getting to know his northern neighbors.
While I am often unsure with regards to his tone, it is consistently clear that Raban savors every moment of human contact. In this book, reflections on human relations and the subtleties of the self outshine everything else. Raban deliciously excerpts snippets of conversations and reflections that peer into the souls of his acquaintances and closest friends. The sea itself serves only as a recurring motif that provides logical connections between the European explorers and natives of the past, the fishermen and disillusioned urban dwellers of the present and the young daughter and dying father of the author's real life. In a book that you assume will focus on long, flowing descriptions of the beautiful landscape, the detail given to the lives of the people found in this environment is refreshing and original.
The historical stories and personal musings effectively fascinate us, but do not evoke any deeper kind of thought. As a travel journal, Passage to Juneau attempts to reflect on the adventures of past explorers of the same passage. Unfortunately, many of the historical accounts that accompany the author's itinerary are essentially some variation of, "Wow! That is an interesting fact. Imagine that!" For example, he introduces us to George Vancouver and his crew on the Discovery, as they attempt to map out the lands of the Inside Passage in 1792. What Raban tells us is interesting food for conversation, a good story to lend a backdrop to his itinerary. But the implications of these narratives never run quite as deep as the sea itself.
Passage to Juneau gets in touch with nature most compellingly by discussing the stories of the Tlingits, the Salish and other tribes of the Pacific Northwest. Raban devotes many words to debunking the over-romanticized image of the harmony of American Indians with their surroundings. The sea is their refuge, as opposed to the dark and threatening woods. Raban directly connects this aspect of the sea with the issues of cultural contamination, a claim that makes us shake our heads.
The most powerful moments of the novel have little to do with the journey at sea. Faced with a father dying from cancer, Raban anchors his boat and rushes back to England to spend time with his parents and prepare for the funeral, noting the analogue between plush coffin and the luxurious cabin of his vessel at sea. He candidly discusses his relationship with his father and notes the various transformations over time, the final of which comes with the hardship of dealing with death.
Passage to Juneau is intelligently written, with plenty of dry wit and humor as well as some reflective thoughts about nature and its inhabitants. The novel is not an account of an adventure at sea; instead, Raban finds his subjects in the past and in isolated towns. Although the novel is subtitled The Sea and Its Meaning, the waters of Alaska are largely peripheral to Raban's voyage of self-discovery.