Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Walking Home - Takes the long way home

I just finished Lynn Schooler's Walking Home - in time for tonight's book club meeting.  It's not a book I would have picked and now that I've finished it, I'm trying to figure out my lack of satisfaction.  And should I evaluate Alaska related books differently from other books? 

Middle-aged Juneau outdoorsman, while building a house for himself and his new bride, decides to complete the last leg of a trek that would have him circumnavigate Mr. Fairweather.  There's already problems with the marriage.  Will leaving for a solo wilderness adventure save it?

As I tried, without much success due to the reflective library cover - to photograph the book, it seemed to me the book cover was a good metaphor for my dissatisfaction.

I looked at the photo, and reflected that Schooler is described as an 'award winning wildlife photographer" and though - "Ok, there are a lot of subtle and interesting parts to this photograph, and it reflects the darkness in this story, the coast, the clouds that provided lots of rain, but for a book cover, it's not really that striking.  Intellectually, it's a good photo for the book, but it doesn't quite work as a book cover."

And that's how I felt about the whole book.  There are a lot of interesting parts.  The interweaving of his present trip with the historical accounts of those who preceded Schooler to these parts.  The moving from what he sees as he walks the wilderness, and his discussions of the habits of the birds he's learned through experience and books.  Or plants, or boats, or weather.  And how members of his island community watched after each other.
"The Ulrichs and the Swansons all stood watching as the wave ripped the timber off the ridge above Gilbert Inlet to a height of 1,700 feet with a force that was later calculated as twenty-five million pounds per-square-foot, which was sufficient to instantly strip all the bark off the tumbling treetrunks and tear away their branches.  Then it rebounded to the eastern shore below Crillon Inlet, flaying the mountainside up to 500 feet above sea level;  it struck so hard that every tree, shrub, tuft of grass, and bit of vegetation was wiped away down to naked bedrock.  It was only after the wave lashed over 320-foot-high Cenotaph Island and tore a swatch through its middle that Ulrich came to his senses.  Seeing the wave rolling down the eastern shore toward them, he said, 'I began to move and I moved fast.'"(p. 81)

Interweaving different times and ideas is tricky business and for the most part it works, but we can see the edges where he moves from now to then, from specific to general.  Schooler was in Lituya Bay and recounting the records he'd found of the 1959 earthquake. 

Sonny (Howard Jr.) was eight and the boat with his dad Howard Ulrich Sr.  He'd be 60 or 61 today.  Juneau folks - does anyone know him?  In the book, they're described as 'from Pelican.' 

Generally, I liked the prose. 
"On a map it looked easy.  I could plant my thumb on Lituya Bay and cover the sixty miles to Dry Bay with an outstretched pinkie."
Some chapters are page turners - the 1958 earthquake and the Lituya Bay tidal wave, being stalked by an injured, hungry bear - others are merely interesting.

I'm sure a lot of folks will really like this book.  Ultimately, while it had interesting background on Alaska history and geography, I just didn't get any new insights.  The personal relationship that was woven into all the other threads was mundane.  There were no real insights into what happened.   If he had them, he didn't share them. 

 Oh yeah.  I didn't even notice, until I started this post, that the rest of the picture is on the back of the cover.  And with both parts it's a better photo.  But the cover is what people see.  And the contents, for me, were like the cover.  Not quite good enough on the whole, though with lots of good parts.

I'm not sorry I read it.  I noted in an earlier post I got to read some history of Mt. Fairweather as I saw it out my Seattle bound flight window. 

I'll hold off until I hear what the other book club members say about the book.

Later:  The book club guys seemed to like the book better than I did.  They like his prose, the liked the history and nature accounts interwoven into the other tales.  They liked the sailing and tidal details and how he described them.  They didn't think much about the relationship thread and some felt it could have done without.  I know I have problems at times about not wanting to leave things out that are important to me, but not to the story I'm telling.  As the person telling the story about his trek in the wild, he probably felt it would have been dishonest to leave his dissolving relationship with his new wife out of the book.  But as good literature, he needed to either make that part of the book more insightful or leave it out. 

It's not a bad book by any means.  I never considered abandoning it.  But for me it didn't quite reach its potential. 

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