Perceptive Travel Book Reviews September 2016
by William Caverlee

In this issue: a fresh travelogue of an expat family on the move, a recreation of a former journey in a different time, and a collection of insightful stories from the Americas.

Mother Tongue
By Christine Gilbert

Family travelogues come in many shapes: the confessions of an expat; the "our year in Tuscany" diary; the sailing log... In Mother Tongue, Christine Gilbert leads her family around the globe in search of language.

She explains her motivation in the book's first pages: a desire to learn three new languages and become immersed in new cultures, new worlds. She also hopes that learning additional languages will be of aid in her young son's future. With her husband and son in tow, Gilbert takes off for Beijing.

Learning Mandarin doesn't go so well. The health hazards from the city's appalling air pollution keep the Gilberts in their apartment for days on end. Making connections with locals doesn't come easy. Also, Gilbert's husband, a stalwart, loving, and generous spouse, has adult ADHD, which makes for daily challenges. After a number of stressful weeks in China, Gilbert admits defeat and the family departs.

Next stop, Beirut. A bit more success here in learning Arabic. Also, Beirut's internationalism, urbanity, food, and street life are a great relief to the Gilberts after the claustrophobic indoor life they had led in Beijing. Unfortunately, during their stay, the violence in nearby Syria steadily migrates to Beirut, and with greater and greater fear for their safety, the family flees.

Their final destination is Mexico. Here, the author makes the most progress yet in learning and speaking a new language. Here, her family is the most relaxed they've been in months. They live near Puerto Vallarta, where just outside their house, they "find a small army of taco stands, small restaurants, and street-food vendors serving freshly made tacos, soups, and more sit-down-style meals featuring chiles rellenos (stuffed peppers) or pollo asado (chicken cooked over charcoal)."

Mother Tongue includes quite a few pages on linguistics and language theory—which are interesting and perfectly apt for such a book, but I predict that the general reader will prefer the author's straight travel writing, with its colorful world of apartment-hunting, street food, new neighbors, daily mix-ups, and family life.

Mother Tongue contains no maps, photographs, or illustrations. Nor could I find any mention of the specific years these events took place. (We can add Mother Tongue to the list of travelogues that unaccountably conceal their time settings.) The inclusion of a few maps and photos, plus a chronology, would have made an otherwise fine book even better.

Returning North with the Spring
By John R. Harris

A sub-genre within the travelogue category is the "revisited journey," wherein a current-day traveler re-creates the route and itinerary of an esteemed predecessor. I'm sure that at this very moment there's a writer out there somewhere retracing John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley. Or Paul Theroux's train ride in The Great Railway Bazaar.

The inspiration for John R. Harris's Returning North with the Spring is a classic of nature writing called North with the Spring, published in 1951 by Edwin Way Teale (1899-1980). Teale and his wife, Nellie, logged 17,000 miles in 1947 during a zigzagging auto tour from Florida to Maine. Naturalist Teale, we learn, was a photographer, a best-selling writer, and a Pulitzer Prize winner.

John R. Harris is a university professor who has read deeply in Teale's oeuvre and presents Returning North with the Spring as an homage and a re-creation of the original journey. Both journeys track south to north, following the progress of spring along America's eastern seaboard. Both authors ask themselves a similar question (here enunciated by Harris): "What would it be like—just this once—to sever ties that hold me here, to follow the full tide of the season rising north through 100 days of spring?"

What results, in Returning North with the Spring, is a kind of double journey: Harris's 2012 trip is deftly overlaid upon Teale's 1947 route. In Florida, we visit the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee, Cross Creek, Okefenokee Swamp. Moving north, the route makes wide swings in order to touch both the Great Smoky Mountains and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Other highlights include Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, the Appalachian Trail, the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, Cap Cod, and Walden Pond.

Harris's 2012 journey is filled with wildlife observations: birds, deer, muskrats, bats, alligators, bears, butterflies, and on and on. Illustrated with numerous black-and-white photographs, Returning North with the Spring is a richly detailed natural history of the eastern United States. Sadly, Harris is forced to include a number of by now familiar warnings. For example:

Like canaries in the coal mine, monarchs appear to be harbingers of our threatened future. In 2012 the numbers of these butterflies across New England declined by a staggering 60 percent.

Teale concludes his portrait of these pinelands focused on an "ancient song of spring"—the lone call of a whippoorwill. I heard this bird's plaintive note only once on my excursion—along a quiet moonlit street on Fripp Island. These once-common nightjars are now rare in the Northeast, having declined by 57 percent over the past forty years, according to the National Audubon Society.

Breakfast for Alligators
By Darrin DuFord

In this lively collection of travel dispatches from the Americas, north and south, Darrin DuFord, a contributor to this webzine, has a knack for befriending locals, tracking down hidden communities, sampling local cuisine, and seeking out curiosities and singular citizens.

Most of Breakfast for Alligators takes place in South and Central America. Guyana, Chile, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Guatemala all receive multiple chapters. In a characteristic encounter, DuFord finds himself in the town of Chuy (or Chuí), which is located half in Uruguay, half in Brazil. There, he goes looking for an espeto corrido, the kind of nonstop Brazilian steakhouse that vegans run shrieking from in their nightmares. There, he meets a cheerful, expansive Uruguayan rancher named Edelmar. Edelmar loves his land, his cattle, his sheep, and his ranching business as much as he loves tucking into a steak.

He mentioned that several investors had approached him recently about renting out part of his land to well-heeled hunters. "I want to keep the land the way it is," he said, and then added, "why do something that doesn't make you happy?"

"Why indeed?" we ask, recognizing a philosophy worth adopting.

In North America, DuFord visits New York, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, and Quebec—these final chapters comprise only six of the book's thirty-two dispatches. Still, there's time to visit a competitive hamburger-eating contest in Queens and to accompany a pair of law enforcement officers on a nighttime nutria hunt (using rifles) in the canals of New Orleans. Nutria are beaver-sized South American rodents that have been chomping and eating their way through Louisiana since first being brought here in the 1930s. Even their status as fast food for alligators hasn't stemmed the tide.

DuFord's excellent tour of the Americas is gritty, funny, street-savvy, boisterous, and informative.

William Caverlee is a freelance journalist who has written for numerous publications, including The Oxford American, The Christian Science Monitor, Aviation History, Cimarron Review, The Florida Review, and Louisiana Cultural Vistas. He's the author of Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays.

See the last round of book reviews from William Caverlee

Also in this issue:

Mother Tongue

Buy Mother Tongue at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK


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Returning North with the Spring

Buy Returning North with the Spring in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Breakfast for Alligators

Buy Breakfast for Alligators at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK