Saturday, September 30, 2023

James A. Michener, Journey


Opening Passage: 

When on 17 July 1897 the steamship Portland docked at Seattle, bringing belated news and hard evidence that an enormously rich strike of gold had been made the summer before along the Klondike River on the extreme western border of Canada, the world was startled by a felicitous sentence scribbled in haste by an excited reporter who visited the ship. Instead of saying that the miners had reached Seattle with "a huge amount of gold" or "a treasure-trove of gold," he wrote words that became immortal: "At 3 o'clock this morning the Steamer Portland from St. Michael for Seattle, passed up the Sound with more than a ton of solid gold aboard." (p. 5)

Summary: As news about the discovery of gold in the Yukon Territory spreads through the world, Lord Evelyn Luton, youngest son of the Marquess of Deal, all-around athlete and veteran of several expeditions across the British Empire, conceives of a plan to cross Canada and reach the Klondike River and its gold fields without ever leaving Canada. Going with him will be his nephew Philip, the son of his older sister; Harry Carpenter, a long-time veteran of expeditions, who is at thirty-seven the oldest and most experienced member of the expedition; Trevor Blythe, a close friend of Philip's; and Timothy Fogarty, a gamekeeper from one of Luton's estates in Northern Ireland. In many ways they represent the full capability of the British Empire at its height.

From the beginning, the fundamental obstacle the expedition faces, one that it never completely overcomes, is an obstacle of information. The last part of the expedition, in Western Canada, was sparsely populated and not commonly traveled, at least before the gold rush, and, as the expedition requires crossing the Rocky Mountains, a certain amount of precision was needed for any planning. They draw on traveler's journals and news reports, as best they can, but it is simply not enough. For one thing, times are changing, and they are not prepared for the sheer number of people traveling west in the hope of getting rich; practically as soon as they reach Canada, they are competing for transportation and resources with everyone else. This is not a complete problem; Luton's wealth and title both carry considerable weight in Canada. But more serious than this is that when they reach Edmonton, they find that almost everything they had relied upon from the news reports was little more than manufactured ad copy by people who had never set foot outside Edmonton. At that point, they have to sort through, on the fly, information of extremely varying quality.

A more serious problem for the expedition, however, arises from Luton's insistence on not leaving the borders of the British Empire. Between Edmonton in Alberta and Dawson in Yukon one finds the very rugged Rockies. There is no possible straight path, and all of the paths that were most tried-and-true required swinging south and going through Alaska. Since Luton refuses to do that, the only possible routes are north, up toward the Arctic Circle, a long way around through difficult and hard to cover country. It's not complete untraversable -- the rivers flowing north, when not iced over, are excellent and navigable, and Fort Norman, near Great Bear Lake on the great Mackenzie River, serves as an outpost about two-thirds of the way through the journey. It's difficult, but entirely possible, and in fact the expedition does reasonably well, although it turns out that they make a near-fatal mistake in choosing their winter camping site. But the thing of it is, you have to cross the Rockies somewhere. There are only a few places, and none of them are easy. Against the advice of several others, who recommend either going up the Gravel River and then by portage moving to the Hess and the Stewart (which Luton rejects because he has it in his head that they need to use the Mackenzie), or else leaving the Mackenzie at the Rat then by portage taking the Bell then by portage again taking the Porcupine to Fort Yukon then the Yukon River (which Luton rejects because it goes through Alaska), they end up taking a route that almost nobody ever goes, a route that forces them to camp through yet another winter.

The dangers of such a trip are many. There is the cold, of course; there is the instability and unpredictability of the rivers when they thaw; there are the many overhanging branches that can sweep a person of the boat if they are not wary; there is the difficulty of hunting game through a vast and scraggly country; there is the inevitable difficulty of stretching supplies long enough. An even more serious danger is the deadly danger of scurvy. By this time, they know exactly how to prevent and treat scurvy, due to the voyages of Captain Cook, but it is one thing to know how and another thing entirely to do it in an unyielding arctic territory with dwindling supplies. Another serious danger for the unwary is that the last stretch of the journey goes through mosquito country, by which I do not mean that it has some mosquitoes, but that it goes through marshy land where every pond surface is covered with mosquito larvae and the mosquitoes swarm in such vast numbers and so aggressively that they can kill or drive mad what they attack. The scurvy and the mosquitoes vie for the most gruesome and unpleasant of the challenges they face. 

Given all this, it is inevitable that the journey have its shares of disaster. Not everyone will survive it. Michener does a very good job of balancing the story. This is a story of admirable, if flawed, people, facing extraordinary challenges with ingenuity and indomitable will that can achieve what might have seemed impossible; and it is also a story of pride and hubris, and the catastrophe that they inevitably bring. In many ways it reminded me of Jules Verne's travel stories, which often have a similar balance (and would often have had a more tragic ending if Verne's publisher had had less of a say).

Favorite Passage:

When it came time for Carpenter to conduct his first evening session, he surprised the group by announcing that on his nights he would read aloud the entire novel Great Expectations, which a tutor had told him was one of the best-constructed of all the English novels, and in time the others looked forward to his sessions, especially when the real cold set in and the river fairly cracked from the ice it was moving about.

They had become involved because this novel was composed of masterful visual images: the dramatic appearance of the convict in the churchyard, Miss Havisham and her moldering wedding cake, Pip's boxing lesson, the wonderful scenes of London. "This is," said Harry, "a damned fine novel for a cabin near the Arctic Circle." (p. 74)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.


James A. Michener, Journey: A Novel, The Dial Press (New York: 2015).