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Nonfiction in Brief

READING THE RIVER : A Voyage Down the Yukon by John Hildebrand (Houghton Mifflin: $17.95)

September 11, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

Many suburban humans--like suburban cats who attack a toy ball as if it were a bird or suburban dogs who corner the mail carrier--seem drawn toward a primal memory of life amid nature. Most of us ignore this attraction, dismissing it as impractical or mitigating it with a week-long wilderness trek. Journalist John Hildebrand and his wife pursued it, however, moving to Alaska in the early 1970s and building a cabin on a tributary stream connected, "through the logic of rivers," to the 2,000-mile-long Yukon of Alaska and northwest Canada. "I was acting out a vague dream of the North," Hildebrand writes, "a vision acquired mostly from books that promised that if we only lived simply our lives would be simple and carefree."

Hildebrand found some truth to his dream, but his wife disliked the long, dark days of the North; when the days became even darker after their son died in a premature birth, they ended their adventure. "Reading the River" begins a decade later, when Hildebrand, now divorced, returns to canoe the length of the Yukon, seeking "the path I had not taken, the people I had not become . . . . I liked to think someone had kept faith with their dreams, even if I hadn't."

Hildebrand meets some of these people--subsistence fishermen from his own generation, trappers, aging pioneers--and describes several adventures on the unpredictable river, but this is largely a journey through internal landscapes. Quiet, lyrical and sensual, it is the most introspective of travel writing, even though Hildebrand is still searching for self-identity by book's end.

When he finally reaches the cabin he built 10 years earlier, for instance, he finds a yellowing list of provisions never purchased: "The handwriting was my own," he writes, "and yet I felt oddly intrusive here, like an archeologist, sifting through the effects of people I didn't know."

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