Tag Archives: adventure

“A Schoolteacher in Old Alaska – The Story of Hannah Breece” edited by Jane Jacobs

I was on vacation (in Alaska) and had promised myself I wouldn’t buy gifts for family and friends – I was trying to travel light. But when I saw this book, I had to have it! Memoirs about Alaska’s early days are numerous, but this one stood out because of the identity of the editor. Jane Jacobs is identified on the book cover as author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Yes, that Jane Jacobs! A Google search of her name yields 22 million hits! Okay, it’s a pretty common name, but I’ll bet the majority refer to the “American-Canadian journalist, author and activist” smiling out at me from Wikipedia (but modestly absent from the book). Hannah Breece, sadly, is not listed in Wikipedia. I hope this is remedied soon.

How did Jacobs-the-activist end up editing this 193-page memoir? In a sense, she inherited the job. Hannah Breece was Jane Jacobs’ aunt. Late in Ms. Breece’s life, when she had retired to Oregon, acquaintances urged her to write about her experiences teaching in Alaska from 1904 to 1918. She asked friends and relatives to return her letters, and used them to assemble a memoir. It was not published. Jane Jacobs admits she was put off by the racism, sexism and colonialism detectable in her Aunt’s writing, though they were merely a reflection of the times.

Hannah Breece died in 1940, and Jane Jacobs published the memoir in 1995! She added detailed commentary that tremendously enhances the value of Ms. Breece’s record. Under the heading of “Puzzles, Tangles, Clarifications”, she addresses the social and political climate of Alaska, its relation to the rest of the US and numerous omissions in the memoir. (In fact, Ms. Breece had left out a great deal.) Jacobs offers seven brief essays clarifying various points. My favorite was #6, entitled “Miraculous Rescues”.

Make no mistake, Hannah Breece was very fortunate to have survived her time in the wilderness. Any newcomer to Alaska had to be smart, strong and LUCKY to deal with the hazards of climate, wildlife, topography and lack of government. Ms. Breece recounts two experiences that “should” have killed her, for which no “rational” explanation of her survival can be offered. Jacobs doesn’t back off from this complex territory. She assigns one experience (a near drowning) to the category of “intuition”. Before crossing a frozen bay, Ms. Breece felt “irrational” fear that was readily explainable after the fact. The second experience was more complex. Perhaps, suffering from hypothermia, Ms. Breece hallucinated. She was helped by a person who wasn’t there. In her dire need, did she remember someone strong and competent from her childhood?

Now that I’ve read it, I’ll pass this book along to the intended recipient. It’s a good thing he likes used books!

“Aurora” by Kim Stanley Robinson

K S Robinson writes a great survival/adventure story. I couldn’t stop reading. Aurora is a real page turner. But Aurora isn’t on my list of favorite science fiction/fantasy. Why?

The plot is weak. SO many good ideas from the first section of the book just evaporate. Gone – when their further development would have been so interesting. Who were the five ghosts, and how do we account for them on a space ship? How many travelers went “feral”? What could be done about the difficulty of deciding who could have a baby, and when?

On the other hand, “Aurora” contained some wonderfully mind blowing plot twists. One involved the “structured forgetting” of an event that had the potential to destroy a small group (2000 people) that could only survive through intense, consistent cooperation. I’m always interested in schism and schismatics, and the meaning of “the rule of law”. When a sophisticated computer develops self awareness and identity, and then announces its role as “sheriff”, I’m intrigued.

I was, early on, a little offended by the computer-develops-personality theme, regarding it as being stolen from 2001 A Space Odyssey. But did Arthur C Clarke really invent that? Who did? In Aurora, it works well, and I enjoyed it. Interestingly, the emerging computer/person was first called Pauline, but later merely addressed as “Ship”, not even consistently capitalized. “Ship” seems to have taken a step back from human relationships when it’s first “friend” died.

Like HAL (in 2001), “Ship” had to intervene to save the project (interplanetary travel), taking steps as radical an interfering with the 3D printers used to produce objects required for survival and lowering oxygen levels to suppress violence. “Ship” prevented disorder from growing into warfare, if the term can be used within a group of only 2000 people. “Ship” also took over entirely, easing its passengers into hibernation when food supplies failed, and carefully reawakening them later.

The characters are not as well developed as in the author’s highly amusing New York 2140. Freya, the closest to a protagonist aside from Ship, baffles me. She becomes a leader unintentionally, and a symbol of the prolonged mental and physical suffering of all the space travelers. Finally making it back to earth, she speaks out on behalf of “involuntary space travelers” like herself, people born into their difficult if not fatal roles due to decisions made by their ancestors. How is this different from being the child of an immigrant? Perhaps it is an issue of scale. An immigrant (theoretically) gains a “whole new world”. A person born on a multigenerational space flight faces a very, very restricted existence.

Robinson is a prolific author, with 19 books and many short stories published. I will sample further before I decide how I think his works will stand the test of time, whether any of them can be classified as “literature”.

“Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why” by Laurence Gonzales

I read this book years ago, probably not long after it came out in 2003. I found it as I pursued my (literary) interest in mountains and climbing. (Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer is one of my top ten favorite books.)

Case histories make up the heart of this book. I guess we all read about disasters and wonder “Would I have been a survivor? Or a statistic?”

Gonzales treats survival as both an art and a science.

I decided to put my fictional hero Mark Watney (of The Martian) up against Gonzales’ list of survivor traits. How does Mark do?

First of all, Mark manages to believe that the “impossible” has happened. He survived a series of mischances that left him alone on Mars. (Denial wasn’t going to help.) He scores very high indeed on thinking and planning, and he was superbly trained. Humor is important, and Mark is an unapologetic wise guy.

What about play? Gonzales emphasizes the importance of having “stuff in your head”, like poetry, stories, mathematical problems or prayers. Mark is short on this, but in his high tech world, he raids his departed companions “entertainment” files, reading murder mysteries, listening to disco and watching re-runs of old TV shows.

What else? Gonzales emphasizes persistence, but doesn’t say that much about creativity. Watney was creative, and came up with the highly improbable intervention that led to the book’s happy ending.

Most important, I think, in Gonzales’ analysis, was that Watney did things even when they didn’t seem likely to work. Like growing potatoes. So I would say that Mark Watney rated about 60% or 70% against Gonzales ‘ list of survival supporting characteristics. But, hey, its fiction…

Who should read Deep Survival?

  • Anyone involved with or curious about emergency management.
  • Anyone who takes risks intentionally – like mountaineering or white water rafting.
  • All parents of teenaged boys – they are biologically programmed to take risks!

Gonzales has published another book entitled Surviving Survival – The Art and Science of Resilience. I plan to read it.

“The Voyage of the Narwhal – A Novel” by Andrea Barrett

Published in 1998, 394 pages, Norton paperback edition.

I can’t believe how much I liked this book! It’s one of the best novels I read since Cold Mountain.

(Digression… Why was I predisposed to read this book? My Father’s World War II military service included spending two winters in Point Barrow. Alaska, prospecting for north slope oil. Barrow was a tiny, isolated community and the Navy (Construction Battalion) unit was left more or less on its own for the cold, dark months. Dad came home with an interest in the arctic exploration, and read everything our public library provided about the polar explorers and their journeys. If Dad was alive, I would send him a copy of this wonderful story!

The other thing that hooked me was theword  “narwhal” in the title. The narwahl is a beautiful creature, much less studied than the whale or dolphin. It’s single tusk may be the source of the unicorn legends…)

The plot exceeded my expectations, which were of a standard adventure/survival tale. The 1850s was a period of exploration and public excitement about distant places. An expedition leaves from Philadelphia, hoping to find a missing explorer and fill in some blank places on the emerging map of the far North.

What makes this book work so well? The characters are well conceived and idiosyncratic. The author does not give too much away. I suppose I knew there had to be a “bad guy”, but who it was and what acts he would commit were not signaled in advance. The plot surprised me (more than once), and there was a subtle arc of retribution that I barely caught on my first reading.

Yesterday I glanced at the New York Times (April 1, 2016) and found a review of another novel about the far North, with emphasis on whaling rather than exploration. The North Water by Ian McGuire sounds too gory for me, and possibly too laden with literary references. But I realize this is only one reviewer’s opinion, so I may grab this if I find it on the “new arrivals” shelf at the library.

Meanwhile, I plan to read more by Andrea Barrett.

Noble Savages – My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists by N A Chagnon

This is a “big” book – it covers Chagnon’s long career and deals with big ideas – including culture, science and professional standards. It’s also a long book, but it held my interest. I remember seeing one of the early popular articles based on Chagnon’s field work when I was a teenager. Was it in National Geographic? I was intrigued.

So why, 35 or 40 years later, did my friends seem so surprised that I was reading a book about anthropology? After all, I took an anthropology course in college (just one). Didn’t we all read Margaret Meed and fantasize about running off to Samoa? 

So much can be said about this book. First, Chagnon asserts his identity as a scientist and rejects “advocacy” as the proper role of the field anthropologist. 

I’m struck by the fact that the Yanomamo culture was/is so “successful”. These people, who only rather recently came into contact with the wider world, lived lives we might consider violent and “dirty” (I simplify here), but they fed themselves, were possessed of language, myths and goods, and their population was slowly increasing. Chagnon spent time recording genealogies and observing changes that occurred as group size increases.

The Yanomamo had no particular reason to help or even tolerate anthropologists. In some sense, all information was “purchased” with trade goods, ranging from fish hooks to machetes. Chagnon formed friendships that ranged beyond the mercenary, in some cases extending for decades. He worked under rigorous and often dangerous conditions.

The possibility for trouble during contact between staggeringly different cultures always looms. Chagnon explores and documents two deadly issues – firearms and measles. 

Chagnon’s difficulties in getting along with others in his profession provide an interesting window on growth and change in the social sciences. He describes the extent to which his colleagues clung to preconceptions. Many were unwilling to accept his assertion (based on years of observation) that the Yanomamo fought over WOMEN (not over resources needed for subsistence). They considered his characterization of the Yanomamo as “fierce” to be inaccurate and prejudicial, although he was quite certain they would have felt complimented.

I was surprised to find extensive discussion of E O Wilson’s Sociobiology, which burst on the academic scene while Chagnon was fighting with his fellow anthropologists. Chagnon and Wilson both use the scientific method and evolutionary theory to investigate what it means to be “social”. 

If you are interested in how social sciences are taught in American colleges, you should read this book. If you like lively autobiography, don’t miss it.