Passage to Juneau by Jonathan Raban

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Jonathan  Raban's A Passage to Juneau
Passage to Juneau: A Sea and its Meanings, by Jonathan Raban. 1999

I read travel literature both to learn about places I want to visit (or have done already) and to learn about places or journeys that I feel no desire for. Jonathan Raban’s Passage to Juneau, about the author’s solo sail from Seattle, along the coast of Canadian British Columbia and up to Juneau in Alaska, represents the latter for me. I’m impressed that he made the trip; I think a lot of the places he describes sound eerily beautiful and certainly interesting. But this book represents armchair travel at its most literal to me.

Passage to Juneau is based on Raban’s trip in the early 1990s, when he was the father of a three year old daughter (who has since grown). Despite not wishing to be separated from his child, and the pangs of guilt and distress that such separation cause for him (reminiscent of Peter Mathiessen’s guilt, expressed in The Snow Leopard), he is a keen hobby sailor and embarks upon what is only meant to be a month-long trip. Raban’s descriptions of the British Columbian coastline are interspersed with fascinating historical details about Captain Vancouver’s first early voyage along the same coast, and the various groups of Native American inhabitants. I had not known anything about Vancouver-the-man before reading this, and it made me wonder what it must be like to live in a city named after such an apparently unpleasant person!

Raban’s journey is interrupted when he gets news that his septuagenarian father is dying. Leaving his boat in the care of some people he meets in a small coastal town, he returns to England to spend his father’s last weeks with him, then resumes his trip some weeks later.

Passage to Juneau is a beautiful book for two reasons. The best travel literature does more than recount a journey; many a writer can travel and then write about it, but the best weaves in much more, whether that is the back-story of the author, the relationships between the traveller and the people s/he meets or the place. Raban’s journey, though not the cause, happens at a time of loss for the author, lost lives, lost relationships. If one was to run with the metaphor of sailing–which is, admittedly, a bit kitschy–the coastal landscape and the people in Raban’s life are treated with equal weight, and the author is navigating his way through them, both enjoying the view and careful of what lies under the depths, not knowing when he will run into trouble.

I particularly appreciated and enjoyed Raban’s discussion of the differences between the US and Canada. As a new inhabitant of North America myself, living on the border (Canada is visible from Buffalo) yet feeling that this city is entirely American, I have wondered how North Americans perceive this relationship and their differences. Particularly Canada, as the ‘little brother’; ‘big brothers’ don’t tend to give these relationships much thought. A similar dynamic would be that between New Zealand and Australia, countries that I know intimately. But in that case, there is a very large sea between them. The US and Canada are separated only by an arbitrary line, and some rivers and lakes. In Europe, where there is similar land-to-land contact, border communities exist, who have traditionally spoken both or mixed languages, who are culturally hybrid. Here, in Buffalo, it appears that the locals look south and west, rather than north. So where do the similarities and differences between the US and Canada lie–aside from the obvious ones of taxation, healthcare, gun control… Raban, an Englishmand himself who has lives in the US for many years, perhaps provides some of the answers:

“People liked to say that if America was a melting pot, Canada was a salad bowl. In Canada, immigrants kept their original identities and flavors, while in America they were assimilated into the cultural stew. If you came here as a spring onion, you could stay a spring onion, without anyone trying to turn you into a tomato or a cucumber.” (p. 118)

And this:

“Trawling a broad net through American and Canadian fiction, [Canadian literary critic Russell] Brown suggested that one essential difference between the two cultures lay in the characters of Oedipus and Telemachus. In the States, a society founded on revolution, the mythic hero was the runaway son, the patricide; Oedipus as Huckleberry Finn. Escape, rebellion, the cult of the new life at the expense of the old, were the commanding American themes. Up north, in a society founded on the refusal to rise up against its parent, the mythic hero was the loyal son of Odysseus, Telemachus; the voyager in search of the lost father. Americans broke with their ancestral pasts, whereas Canadians honored theirs.” (p. 118)

So, while I enjoyed reading about the sea, the coast of Western North America, life on a boat, the history of the region, I also felt that this book has a lot of insights about the nature of American-ness and Canadian-ness, of the sort that only an outsider can provide. With a few years’ experience and some geographical distance, I might attempt similar judgments of Australia and New Zealand, but I’m still new to North America so need writers like Raban to help me contextualise the place.

I highly recommend this book to lovers of literary non-fiction, whether you are already interested in this area of the world or not. To be honest, despite the intellectual interest of this area, this book has not enticed me to travel to this part of the world, or to do my travelling by boat. But neither was this the author’s intention; it’s not that kind of travel writing.

I purchased a second-hand copy of Jonathan Raban’s Passage to Juneau in a bookstore in Buffalo. Various editions are available these days, but mine was published by Pantheon Books in New York in 1999.

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2 thoughts on “Passage to Juneau by Jonathan Raban”

  1. I’m admittedly not a huge fan on non-fiction as I find it doesn’t usually sweep me away like fiction does. And that’s why I read… but every now and then I like to switch things up. Sounds like this would be an interesting read.
    Growing up, we were taught that Canada is a cultural mosaic (the salad bar) and the US is a melting pot (the stew). 🙂

    • Yes, for a long time I preferred fiction, but I’m really coming around to well-written non-fiction and travel writing (with the emphasis on well-written! There’s a lot of bad stuff out there, as there is with fiction!) It also sounds like Raban was using a well-known adage, but as I’m new to this region, I’m starting from scratch 🙂


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