Perceptive Travel Book Reviews August 2016
by Susan Griffith

In this issue: Autobiography in combination with travel is the theme this month, from the true story of a young teacher in Argentina who rescued a dying penguin, to personal journeys of healing. One is in the chilly sub-arctic climes of the 60th parallel and the other following British rivers to their sources.

The Penguin Lessons: A True Story
Tom Michell

The traveler who is confronted with distress has to decide how involved to become, for example whether to drop a few rupees in a bowl or volunteer at Mother Teresa's mission. In the late 1970s, when young Tom Michell was teaching in a privileged private school in Buenos Aires, his impulsive act of charity towards a struggling penguin led to this remarkable story told nearly 40 years later.

The year was 1976, when the generals had just ousted Isabel Perón in a coup. While exploring Uruguay during a school break, the author was staying in a family friend's apartment in the seaside resort of Punta del Este. Taking a walk one evening, he was horrified to see that one beach had been turned into a black carpet covered with black lumps which turned out to be thousands of penguins killed by an oil spill. Out of the corner of his eye, he notices a flicker of movement in this sea of devastation, from a single penguin with bright angry eyes and an open beak. He can't help but intervene, and so begins a glorious friendship.

The tale is beautifully told. Whereas one would now be able to google "How to clean a Magellan penguin", young Tom had to improvise with butter and shampoo. He comments rather unnecessarily that "the average penthouse holiday flat is rarely equipped with the necessities for de-tarring penguins" which gives a flavor of his wry style. After cleaning up the newly christened Juan Salvador (later changed to Salvado, which means "saved" rather than "savior" though Juan fulfills both roles), Tom tries to return him to the sea, but the penguin refuses to leave. The author then has to work out how to get him across the border into Argentina, which he does by appealing to the border guard's national pride, telling him that he is simply repatriating an Argentinian penguin.

Juan Salvado quickly charms his way into the affections not only of the reader but of the staff and students at St George's College. He becomes the confidant of all who visit and who clamor to share in the task of feeding him sprats from the fish market and taking him for walks around the school grounds. One of the most touching chapters is about a bullied talentless boy called Diego who begs to be allowed to swim with Juan Salvado in the school's neglected swimming pool. He proves to be a brilliant swimmer which no one in the school had realized.

The penguin has so many admirers and eager babysitters that Tom can safely leave his friend behind while going off on adventures, that later make it possible for this book to count as a travel book. He follows his youthful yearnings to experience the "thin-air heights of the mighty Andes, the vast empty plains of Patagonia, the snowy pine-covered wilderness of Tierra del Fuego and the arid, drifting desert sands of the Atacama". The most memorable meal of his life is of freshly caught armadillo barbecued by guachos, whose disappearing way of life he captures with sensitivity and respect. Altogether this is a heartening and most enjoyable read (predictably published by Penguin Books).

60 Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home
Malachy Tallack

Following the latitude line that passes through the Scottish island of Shetland, the author's home since the age of ten, had been a dream and an ambition from his adolescence. He worries that circumnavigating the world around the 60th parallel is "arbitrary and pointless" but clings to his "mad and irresistible" obsession. Others have had similar impulses including the British adventurer and TV presenter Simon Reeve who has followed the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. The serendipity of following a straight line inevitably leads the traveler into overlooked corners of the world. Tallack makes unlikely places interesting, such as Fort Smith on the border of Alberta and the Northwest Territories of Canada, which you might have expected to be a dying redneck northern town but is instead a place where the "wisdom and intimacy of community life" persist. It seems that vulnerable communities are strengthened by their remoteness, including of course Shetland.

Leaving his island home, with which he has an uneasy relationship, he heads west to Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Kamchatka in the far east of Russia, St Petersburg and Scandinavia. He returns to Shetland, "to arrive where he started and know the place for the first time" (to quote T.S. Eliot). He is a thoughtful solo traveler who is economical with the places he chooses to explore and who finds well-informed and offbeat locals with whom to converse. He is interested in how inhabitants engage with place, especially in lands of ice and isolation.

He is also brilliant at describing the natural world. For example, the immense carpet of sea ice he sees from the window of an Air Greenland helicopter comes to embody the North as "bright and brittle, terrifying and intensely beautiful". This could serve as a definition of the sublime as defined by the Romantic poets. Wordsworth sought the sublime in nature because he felt it could lift the burden of the world. And so it does for this author who, when he was 16, lost his beloved father in a car accident and who struggles to find his place in the world.

Places along the 60th parallel are united by the inhospitable climate. In Seward Alaska, he sees crowds of elderly men and women trudging up and down, "wrapped in dark waterproofs, their hoods raised like congregations of monks all bowed against the unholy elements." In all these northern outposts, people patiently pit themselves against the elements. We learn that there is a word in Finnish, sisu, which means stoical perseverance. This is armchair traveling at its finest, about places most of us are likely to visit only in our imaginations.

The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream
Katharine Norbury

In this highly lauded volume, travelogue takes a back seat to memoir. The author is undertaking an emotional journey to the source of her life, the birth mother who gave her away, onto which she tries to map physical journeys from the sea to the source of several rivers in Scotland and England. For me the relationship between the metaphorical and actual journeys was an uneasy one. Once again we see how broad and nebulous the category of travel literature has become.

The quality of the writing is at times vivid and original. Near her cottage in North Wales, she sees masses of monbretia, "the orange lilies dancing over pliant strap-like leaves, racing along the paths like a Pentecost" or she hears each retreating wave as "an apnoeic gasp." At other times the forensic descriptions of topography become rather wearying. Landscapes that are meant to be freighted with feeling do not always translate for the reader.

Confusingly the author seems to be on more than one quest: to find the well at the world's end as described in a novel of the same name by the minor Scottish writer Neil Gunn, also to discover her birth parents and later to survive breast cancer. Sad events pile up—the miscarriage that propels her on her journey in the first place, her father's death recalled in great detail, her mother's illness, a friend's death, her own diagnosis of cancer. Distractions, digressions, inconsequential episodes, and a stop-start structure interrupt and dilute the narrative flow. Yet dream-like and revelatory moments evoke the magic of stumbling across hidden places of beauty and meaning, that will speak to readers of a poetic disposition.

Susan Griffith is a Canadian travel writer and editor based in Cambridge England, who writes books and articles for adventurous working travelers. Starting with the classic Work Your Way Around the World and Teaching English Abroad, she has also turned her attention to gap years and has written definitive guides for the young and the not-so-young: Your Gap Year and Gap Years for Grown-ups. She also contributes to the travel pages of the Independent, an online British daily newspaper.

See the last round of book reviews from Susan Griffith

Also in this issue:

The Penguin Lessons

Buy The Penguin Lessons at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada

Amazon UK


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Joys of Travel

Buy 60 Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

The Fish Ladder

Buy The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK