Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Book Review: One Man's Wilderness by Sam Keith.

The ground has been trod before. Henry David Thoreau's Walden traversed it skillfully, for example. Nevertheless, One Man's Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey by Sam Keith stands on its own as a text exploring an isolated life.

The book records Richard Proenneke's 16-month adventure living off the land in an Alaskan wilderness.

While the book is written in the first-person ("I"), it was actually authored by Sam Keith. The jacket indicates however that it is based on the journals and photographs of Richard Proenneke. I make this distinction because the book is quite well-written. It communicates in a simple style reminiscent of Hemingway. Unfortunately, it's not clear who really deserves the credit for the elegantly economical prose. A representative sample:

"After a supper of navy beans, I sat on my threshold and gazed off toward the volcanic mountains. I had been close to them today. The Chilikadrotna River showed me the beautiful fish and I returned them to her. I thought of the sights I had seen. The price was physical toll. Money does little good back here. It could not buy the fit feeling that surged through my arms and shoulders. It could not buy the feeling of accomplishment. I had been my own tour guide and my power had been my transportation. This great big country was my playground, and I could afford the price it demanded." (pp. 207-208)

Most of the book narrates Proenneke's experiences in this rough country. He describes how he constructed a log cabin alone the shores of one of the Twin Lakes. He also provides routine interactions with the area's wildlife. The text's apex in this regard occurs when he observes a bear stalking a mother caribou and her offspring and what he did to intervene. You'll also learn what happens to boiling water when it is introduced into a 45-degree-below temperature. It "turns to a cloud of steam with a loud hissing noise." (p. 31.) Imagine what it would do to a human operating at 98.6 degrees.

While these exploits are interesting, the end flourishes. Proenneke provides his insightful reflections on his experiences. He waxes philosophically on worrying, work and wanton solitude. He concedes that he actually didn't do this alone, as he had regular supply visits from his friend, Babe. A religious man, Babe worked to convert Proenneke to Christianity. While Proenneke treats Babe respectfully, it is an enlightening bonus to see how the nonconverted view evangelism (or at least one experience with it).

I recommend this award-winning book.