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READING THE RIVER A Voyage Down the Yukon by John Hildebrand (Houghton Mifflin: $8.95)

July 16, 1989|CHARLES SOLOMON

At first glance, "Reading the River" appears to be an account of another damn-fool stunt supposedly pitting man against nature: a solo canoe trip through hundreds of miles of northern wilderness. But unlike the dim bulbs who go over waterfalls in barrels or hop along the Continental Divide on one foot, hoping to make "The Guinness Book of World Records," Hildebrand makes his journey into something more than an ego trip.

He notes the changes that the 20th Century is bringing to the Alaskan wilderness and their effects on the animals and indigenous peoples. These observations lead him to re-examine his own relationship with the land, including his unsuccessful attempt to build a cabin in the wilds and lead the '60s image of a life of Thoreauvian purity.

Hildebrand develops his recollections into a meditation on change--the transformations he sees in himself and in other members of his generation--with the winding and often treacherous river as an overriding metaphor. The result is a warmly personal book that invites the reader to share two journeys, one physical, the other spiritual.

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