Six Books for Armchair Travelers
From the Canadian Arctic to Mountains in Vietnam
During high school, I lived on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, spending cozy hours in a battered easy chair beside our trailer’s baseboard heater, safely traveling to distant places through books. Recently, while working on my novel Side Life, I had cause to think about the power of books to transport a reader. Books may draw readers in with imagery, character, prose, or any of a writer’s deftly-wielded tools, but what lingers—at least, for me—is often a sense of place. Here are six books that created imaginative spaces so vivid that reading them felt something like traveling to other worlds.
Gontran de Poncins and Lewis Galantiere, Kabloona: Among the Inuit
French Count Gontran de Poncins spent much of 1938 and 1939 living as a guest of Inuit people near King William Island, in the Canadian arctic. Kabloona is both a detailed outsider’s view of a vanishing way of life and a beautifully-written memoir about the difficulties of living in the Arctic. At first, he finds his journey almost overwhelmingly challenging: “There are days when I am so covered in ice that I cannot speak . . . Sometimes I would think, as I ran beside the sled, that I must look like a chandelier in movement. I would laugh; the act of laughing would tear at the ice and send sharp pains over my face and I would stop.” But eventually de Poncins, who spends much of the book trying to learn from his hosts and is keen to understand how the environment has shaped their experience, comes to view the landscape as charged with psychological portent:
The southern sky was a hard bright blue, and so luminous that the chaplets of islands and the faraway mountains emerged in the distance with brilliant clarity. Over this world hung a peace, a silence, that seized the beholder. The air was brisk and light. But the peace of the scene, the lightness of the air, was mere deception. Something stirring, something vibrant was present that filled the being with a nameless agitation.
Whatever that “something vibrant” is, it fills Kabloona.
Richard Henry Dana, Two Years Before The Mast
In 1879, Richard Henry Dana suspended his undergraduate studies at Harvard to crew a merchant brig that sailed from New York to California via Cape Horn and plied the California coast for cow hides before sailing back to New York, where the hides were referred to as “California banknotes.” While most of the book is woven from elegant 19th century sentences, it’s veined through with semi-opaque sailing jargon that lends it a unique feel. (“As soon as each sail was hauled up and the bunt made, the jigger was bent on to the slack of the buntlines, and the bunt triced up, on deck.”) Ships like Dana’s sailed alone and their crews worked unceasingly, sometimes at dizzying heights in pitching storm, cold and soaked through, pummeled by raging seas, and occasionally under the command of officers of dubious competence. Dana paints vivid and heartfelt portraits of his shipmates’ hardships and consolations. Additionally, his memories of working and living on a California beach with a mostly Hawaiian crew are charged with nostalgic power, capturing a mixture of beauty, yearning, joy, and melancholy that will strike a resonant chord with anyone who has sat beside a beach fire watching the shining ocean shift and roll on a warm starlit night.
Quang Van Nguyen and Marjorie Pivar, Fourth Uncle in the Mountain
Fourth Uncle in the Mountain is the memoir of a young man learning to be a traditional healer in the mountains of Vietnam. Following in his father’s footsteps, Quang Van Nguyen devotes himself to learning from Fourth Uncle, a monk who has acquired transcendent abilities through meditation. Many books invest magic with an aura of unreality or use narration to assert a familiar, rationalist perspective that subtly undercuts supernatural events and effects. But in Nguyen’s telling, there’s no distance between the magic and the narrative perspective. The result is a world in which ghosts, immortal monks, magic plants, and terrible curses are as factual as the United States, chickens, and familial love. The landscape, with its sacred mountains and caves rooted in centuries of tradition, is the book’s ultimate source of magic, but it’s also the site of grinding point geo-political pressure. Foreign wars eventually engulf the land, and Nguyen must depart the hidden sanctuary that he and co-author Marjorie Pivar have so skillfully captured here.
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Reindeer Moon
In Reindeer Moon, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, who studied anthropology and lived with hunter/gatherers, conjures the ghost of a prehistoric young woman named Yanan and the world she wandered. Here are Yanan and her younger sister Meri leaving the body of their father, who has died during deep winter:
[My pack], rolled in our deerskins, held my firesticks and most of the meat, but it also held some things that, with terrible misgivings, I had taken from Father’s side—the ax from its place near his bed, his bison horn filled with tinder, and his heavy greenstone knife. Poor little Meri had rolled everything she could find into a piece of reindeer skin—some grass from her bed, her three pine-cone dolls, a broken scraper that Father had once discarded but then gave her for a toy.
Details such as the once forbidden, now available axe and Meri’s inability to let go of her pine cones and grass connect us directly to Thomas’ characters, and through them, to their unforgiving world. Yanan and her people anthropomorphize everything around them, from the weather to creatures; the human dead even return in spirit form as animals. But Thomas doesn’t anthropomorphize to avoid painful realities—her characters do it as a way of approaching their world’s irreducible mysteries.
Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Slave
The Slave takes place in 17th-century Poland, a landscape of competing nations that inflicted terrible personal losses on individuals caught between them. It begins when a young Jewish man named Jacob is sold as a slave to Polish farmers after his wife and children are murdered by Cossacks. Singer’s characters are instantly recognizable, but they each see the world through the lenses of different traditions and culture. They move toward and away from one another as the story unravels a catalog of difficulties and atrocities with a sense of removal that is both painful and mesmerizing. The characters may find consolation with each other, but to allow themselves to truly heal, they must see beyond mutually exclusive beliefs. It’s the detailed and hypnotic rendering of those beliefs and Singer’s ability to create the terrain that contains them all that brings the world of The Slave to life.
Frans G. Bengtsson, The Long Ships
As a teenager, I loved the Norse sagas, and The Long Ships has many of the qualities that captured my imagination. Set in a period when Christianity was gaining a foothold among the Norse, the novel’s hard-bitten characters still view themselves as heroes from myth and treat their own hopelessly impulsive acts as legendary decisions—then suffer the inevitable consequences with vicious, stoic pride. As the coastlines of medieval Europe pass beyond the salty gunwales of the Viking’s vessels, The Long Ships gives the reader a primer on Viking perspectives, treating them to the spectacle of Vikings being Vikings in medieval Spain, in England, and in France. Its characters’ human foibles resonate while their acts of violence feel safely and distantly anchored in the realms of legend. The Long Ships is bloody, often funny, and set in a wilder past that’s both blurred enough to avoid close inspection and detailed enough to enjoy.