In 1918 Kent, illustrator among other things of the most beautiful edition of Moby-Dick, spent six months roughing it on Fox Island in Alaska's mariti...moreIn 1918 Kent, illustrator among other things of the most beautiful edition of Moby-Dick, spent six months roughing it on Fox Island in Alaska's maritime wilderness with his 9-year-old son, Rockwell III. This book, adapted from his journal entries, is, mostly on account of Rockwell III, quite possibly my favorite (along with McPhee's "Coming into the Country") of the many books—transcendental, survivalist, sociological, satirical—that outsiders have written about their Alaskan adventures.
"We came to this new land, a boy and a man, entirely on a dreamer's search," Kent writes. What distinguishes him from other travelers who'd dreamed of a "Northern Paradise" is the way in which he tried, and in some ways succeeded, to reconcile painting and adventuring with fatherhood. As for the son, fifty years later, now a balding, six-foot-four biologist, Rockwell the Younger would tell his father that the "year we spent together on Fox Island was the happiest of all my life," or so his father reports in the preface to the 1970 edition.
In their one room cabin, they shared everything. They slept in the same bed. They cleared trees together, cut firewood together, ice-skated together, "holding hands like sweethearts." For entertainment, Kent brought along a small library of books, and at bedtime, by lamplight, he would read to his son from "Robinson Crusoe" or "Treasure Island" or the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Aptly subtitled, Kent's book records genuine moments of danger, but little of the testosterone-addled, man-versus-wild drama one usually encounters in louder adventure narratives, and when those moments of danger do arise, Rockwell the younger responds to them in poignantly childish ways.
The woodcuts and drawings that Rockwell the elder produced during his Alaskan retreat, and which illustrate "Wilderness," are far more moving to me than the landscapes that inspired them. What makes them moving isn't the landscapes, per se, but the human figures whose inner lives the landscapes serve to dramatize. As winter sets in, so does disenchantment. Kent looks to "the sun going down with a kind of dread." He grows desperately lonely: "I have moments, hours, days of homesick despondency." One gets the impression that without the company of his son, Kent's lonely thoughts that winter might have turned, as they had in the past, suicidal. One also gets the impression that without animal playmates, the younger Kent might have gone bonkers too.
Just as little Rockwell delights in the local flora and fauna, elder Rockwell delights in his son, who increasingly becomes the journals main subject. What Kent discovers on Fox Island isn't mainly the transporting beauty of Alaska but the poignant beauty of his son.
[review adapted from endnotes to my book, "Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them."](less)
A trans-Atlantic journey through the natural history and literary history of the whale. Like Melville's Ishmael, Hoare swims through libraries and sai...moreA trans-Atlantic journey through the natural history and literary history of the whale. Like Melville's Ishmael, Hoare swims through libraries and sails over oceans. Unlike Ishmael, he also goes swimming with whales, not just any whales either, Folio whales. Along the way he reveals how our confused thinking about and knowledge of this most charismatic and mythic of marine mammals has changed in the last century and a half. We now know, for instance, that Melville was wrong about the great sperm whale's silence (they echolocate with clicks), and we have better ideas about what all that spermaceti is for. Along with Melville's, the influence of Sebald's "Rings of Saturn" can be felt, especially in those chapters in which Hoare walks among whale bones (some still dripping oil) and grainy photographs. Hoare opens the flood gates to the wonder world but leavens his wonder with elegy. A beautiful book.(less)