Reviews: Americana

Americana,
Luke Healy,
Nobrow

Two thousand, six hundred and sixty miles: that’s the length of the Pacific Crest Trail. Running right across America’s great west coast, it runs through some truly remarkable landscapes as it takes hikers from the Californian-Mexican border all the way to the Canadian border, taking in burning deserts, vast forests and huge, snow-capped (even in summer) mountain ranges like the High Sierras. Hikers of all ages and abilities try to tackle the PCT each year, many “thruhikers” are determined to cover the entire trail in one season, from baking, scorched deserts to frigid mountains, people from all over the world, including Irish cartoonist Luke Healy, who previously brought us How to Survive in the North, reviewed here)

Luke explains that he is not the athletic, outdoor type – far from it. In self-deprecating tones he notes his general unfitness, that his preparations that mostly consisted of doing some extra walking round town back home (not quite the same as doing regular hillwalking and the like!), and this is apparent very quickly as he depicts himself huffing and puffing along through the roasting landscape of southern California, and knowing he has thousands of miles to go. So why has he committed himself to this test of endurance?

It’s a good question, and while Luke muses on possible reasons for this voyage across America’s landscapes – not least his own fascination with the country, like many Irish folk he has a strong draw to that land (new opportunities) but also negative connotations (so many family members emigrating there never to return). And certainly seeing any country on foot as you pass through it is a pretty good way to learn more about it, to appreciate not only the land and the sights but the people, in a way travelling that distance by plane never could. And yet I strongly suspect the main reason is simply that the idea got into his head and wouldn’t leave him, no matter how unlikely a figure he was for a long, tough hiking trip.

And that’s no bad thing – sometimes we get an idea we just can’t get rid of, that may drive us to try something very different from what we would normally do. And in many ways I think Americana benefits from Luke not being a seasoned outdoorsman – we’ve all seen books by Bear Grylls or Joe Simpson, and fascinating though they are, I often find myself a little detached and removed from those accounts, because those writers have trained and endured to function in those spaces at a level far above anything I would manage. In Luke’s account I find it more personable because here’s someone not too different from me, with all the problems that may entail, and I can empathise far more with his account.

I think the comics medium is a splendid forum for travel literature – I’ve long admired Guy Delisle’s work, for instance – and Luke makes good use of the medium here to document his travels and experiences. The art is mostly black and white with some red and blue, and takes a relatively simple approach. That’s not a criticism, the cartooning here is not overly detailed or elaborate, but it doesn’t have to be – Luke delineates landscapes, from tree-covered hills to mountains to deserts with simple but effective, clear strokes, the sequence of panels giving the impression of the continual nature of the trail, onwards, onwards, onwards, across those vast, diverse landscapes of North America.

While I very much enjoyed taking in the changing landscapes, the towns, the trails, I think for me Americana shines most when Luke is describing and depicting his interactions with other people. There are “trail angels”, such as people who kindly leave caches of water along the desert stretches for hikers to make use of (he contrasts this with those who also leave water supplies for illegal migrants crossing the southern border, which are destroyed by the border patrols if found, unlike the hiker supplies), the many who drive near those routes and routinely offer a lift to tired walkers or offer them a space to settle for the night. There’s a lot of generosity and kindness on display here.

The main interactions, however, are with his fellow hikers. As the long route starts to hone him, burning off excess weight, making him fitter and leaner, building his stamina, he encounters more and more people. Some he will keep meeting again and again as they pass each other then catch up on rest days in small towns along the route, and many of those become friends, all with their own trail nicknames (he is given the name “bivvy” for his bivouac and rudimentary camping skills). There are points where he wishes to hike alone, but then he always encounters some of the same people again and again and he finds himself enjoying being with them, the camaraderie of the trail seeps into him.

These newly forged friendships contrast with the feeling of distance from his home and family in Ireland, especially when he gets a phone call to tell him a beloved family member is seriously ill. That’s the sort of news that would make any of us far from home feel isolated and depressed, and while it does have this effect, the ever-changing landscapes and the people he has befriended keep him going. There are many times he feels weak, ill, depressed and ready to throw in the towel, and other moments of small triumphs as he marches tiredly past another milestone and feels that sense of achievement. Does he make it all the way? That you will need to buy the book to find out.

Americana is a lovely read, Luke’s pretty humble approach to his own abilities (especially at the start, untried, inexperienced) endears him to the reader, someone we can identify with, the love-hate-love relationship Irish families have with that vast land over the ocean, the depiction of the simply astonishing range of landscapes and terrains that huge continent offers, from the sand and rock and rattlesnakes of the sun-blasted deserts to bears and deer among the green trees of the hills and mountains. But for me it is the nature of travel and endurance to awaken something in our souls that is the strongest element here, something Luke handles with a quiet effectiveness, and above all the friendships formed along the way.

How to Survive in the North

How to Survive in the North,

Luke Healy,

Nobrow Press

First off, apologies for the tardiness of this piece; I read How To Survive in the North a while ago, put it to one side when busy, intending to get right back to it and writing it up. And promptly buried it under several other books, only to rediscover it when I was tidying a pile of recent books. Still, surge of guilt aside, this did give me a chance to re-read it to refresh my memory, and I found myself enjoying it even more the second time around.

The book follows two early twentieth century Arctic expeditions, with a contemporary strand in which troubled academic Sully Barnaby, recently put on an enforced sabbatical, inspired by finding the name of a much earlier lecturer who once used his office, starts using his newly freed time to start digging into the college library’s records on Vilhjalmur Stefansson. As he examines boxes of letters, journals and other documents in the Stefansson collection he also comes across mentions of Wrangel Island, which leads him to another expedition, on which a young Iñupiat woman, Ada Blackjack, was retained as cook and seamstress. The Stefansson organised expedition to Wrangel Island in 1921 also included Fred Maurer, who had survived the shipwrecking of a previous expedition on the Karluk which had left him and other survivors trying to survive for months on Wrangel Island.

With his suddenly enforced bounty of free time Sully begins piecing together the stories of the two expeditions, of surly, bad-tempered Captain Bartlett (who may be a tough and rough, prickly old salt, but he is also a very experienced captain and proves quite heroic in his determination to try and protect his crew in the face of disaster), of Stefansson, out to make a name for himself in Arctic exploration, and Ada, a woman struggling on the poverty line and with a seriously ill young son, driven into this dangerous mission by the simple need to earn money to pay for her son’s treatment. All are caught in a battle for survival on their trips, when things go wrong, and the Arctic is brutally unforgiving of mistakes.

Healy nicely captures something of the atmosphere of that last blossoming of a bygone age of great exploration, of adventurers and scientists (and indeed sometimes the scientists were adventurers) and sailors pushing into the last parts of the globe that weren’t fully mapped and understood (or claimed for one flag or the other – nationalism too plays a large part in these expeditions of this era). It’s an era that was as remarkable for its stoic heroism in the face of adversity (some of that adversity caused by their own lack of knowledge or preparation). Mostly told in pages of sequences of small panels, which keeps the narrative moving along, while the art is full of atmospheric little touches, like the frozen breath in the Arctic air – just a tiny detail, but it shows the attention Healy is paying to crafting his scene, to trying to induce a feeling for that great, frigid wilderness and the sort of people who challenged it for survival (some triumph, many do not).

The use of the troubled (fictional) Sully to piece these real historical events together is a clever one, not just as a mechanism to allow us into the twin narratives of the expedition, but also as a nice contrast. The middle-aged, pleasantly plump Sully has some personal problems (the cause of his current enforced sabbatical), but despite this his has mostly been a comfortable, sheltered, academic life in our modern age of conveniences, in stark contrast to the pushing the edge of survival of that age of hardy explorers and what they endured. It’s an absorbing, atmospheric melding of real history with a dash of the fictional tying it together, and a reminder of an era, only a century ago, when the edges of the world were still rough, dangerous and often unknown, a world vanished in our modern day when we can look at any spot on the globe from the comfort of our armchair.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog