Wednesday, October 12, 2011
I finished not long ago Ivan Doig's Winter Brothers: A Season at the Edge of America, published in 1980. The work is an overview of, and thoughts about, the voluminous diaries of James G. Swan; who was a pioneer (among Euroamericans at least) in exploring and understanding the coastal areas of Washington State-- particularly the Olympic Peninsula: Port Townsend, and Neah Bay (as well as British Columbia and other places). I first cursorily read parts of the book (lent by a former friend) on a trip to the Olympic Peninsula many years back with a friend, which included a stop in Neah Bay and other places referenced in Doig's tome (along with a couple hours spend in Kurt Cobain-pre fame era Aberdeen, sauntering downtown, and visiting a thrift store). In fact, the trip was partly inspired by Winter Brothers, sort of following "on the trail of Swan." (I think of the volume sometimes as Swann's Way, simply because of the association with James G. Swan -- although it has nothing to do with Proust.)
It's an outstanding, but flawed, book. Consider the gripping tension of Swan's last adventure, to Haida Gwaii, the Queen Charlotte Islands (although the passage of the islands' West Coast is strangely understated, anticlimactic, not really delineated at all), and the sly, humorous, sometimes terrifying accounts of the frontiersman's life with the Makah and Haida, and other First Nation tribes. Much of this is in Swan's own words, but Doig's commentary helps link and explain the material. Against this, you also have the sometimes banal nature of Doig's thoughts: "I was surprised myself, far back along the highway when arriving to the cabin, how the lift of the mountain (Rainier) made itself felt even there, the road suddenly jerking into rising curves." Yeah, the ground does rise WHEN YOU APPROACH A MOUNTAIN.
Or: "(Even what I have been calling the Pacific Northwest is multiple. A basic division begins at the Columbia River; south of it, in Oregon, they have been the sounder citizens, we in Washington the sharper strivers. Transport fifty from each state as a colony on Mars and by nightfall the Oregonians will put up a school and a city hall, the Washingtonians will establish a bank and a union.)" Huh? That's just a tad condescending... Doig's whimsy on how a cat might end up getting smothered in bird poop is another idea that doesn't really fly.
The book overall is a good presentation of Swan's diaries, which could have benefited from tighter editing -- in fact, the whole framework of Doig's own commentary could have been either scrapped or seriously overhauled, with benefit. There are important themes covered in Brothers, such as the notion of traveling west, to "light out for the territory," until you can't go any further.
Doig's own writing only loosely (if at all) relates to Swan's journals and times.
Perhaps a biograpy, or selection of Swan's diaries, would be in order. And how I'd like to drop by Haida Gwaii.
I've also started processing Thomas "famously reclusive" Pynchon's V. -- so far, doesn't really grip me, but I will withhold judgement for now.
Posted by Jonathan at 1:46 AM