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America's center, Maine's tallest mountain and wild Newfoundland
Three North American Travel Books

The Washington Post Book World
January 15, 2006

Seeking to exploit a "curious time in history" — that is, America after Sept. 11 — Dale Maharidge, a professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, set off with Washington Post photographer Michael Williamson for Denison, Iowa (population in 2000: 7,339), to answer a question: "What could be learned about the soul of the nation in a rural place that in so many ways might be a microcosm of the country?"

That's an ambitious question, especially given the 12 months they allotted themselves to discover the answer. But Denison, Iowa: Searching for the Soul of America Through the Secrets of a Midwest Town (Free Press, $25) succeeds in painting the town's portrait in both small and large brushstrokes. An intimation of the nation's future emerges — from the small-town merchants' fears about a Wal-Mart Supercenter to the dreams of the burgeoning Latino population to the attempts by local officials to revitalize a downtown business district. Indeed, most of the flux they record in their year-long journey will be familiar to anyone who's attended a city council meeting or tuned an ear to an immigrant's hopes. "They are fixing up many buildings here," says Luis Navar, a Mexican who now makes Denison home. "I hope to get some of that work."

Stories like Navar's are the highlight of the book, and the ones that show Maharidge's personal relationships with his subjects. Emotional intimacy with a source is usually a journalistic heresy, but Maharidge happily gets involved in town life, helping out in an English-language class and scraping paint off an old building to make it ready to become a museum. One woman takes to calling him "Willard," after the reporter character in Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. Maharidge honors the sobriquet by labeling himself "the writer" in several chapters — a gimmick that bloats an otherwise fine book.

Literary pretensions aside, the book sympathetically evokes a changing republic. "You are our future, the future of Denison, of Iowa," a teacher tells her class, in Spanish. Iowa, one thinks, and beyond.

On the Mountaintop

Crowds possess no wisdom for Eric Pinder, a committed outdoorsman and former weather observer whose heartfelt but confounding North to Katahdin (Milkweed; paperback, $15.95) reads, alas, like a love story without a plot. To be sure, the book has heroes (Maine's Mount Katahdin, a stomping ground of both the author's and Henry David Thoreau's) and villains (gaggles of tourists and encroaching civilization), but it lacks narrative structure and makes for an unsatisfying read.

The book's disjointedness — veering from Abenaki Indian legend to Thoreau to hikers' tales — is lamentable because Pinder's twofold aim is worthy: to explore Katahdin, the mountain at the northern extremity of the Appalachian Trail, in particular, and the human attraction toward wilderness in general.

"Do we seek the same thing our forebears sought, a communion with nature?" Pinder wonders. He answers with a characteristic "perhaps," but the rejoinder is more properly "yes," with an asterisk: Modern times have given ever more travelers access to Katahdin and to the wild, but those visitors commune with nature from their cars, leave the occasional cigarette butt on trails and pollute the quietude with noise. All of which leads the put-upon author to vow "never again to climb on a Saturday."

North to Katahdin, then, is part paean and part conservationist plea, though I found myself wishing Pinder had put more effort into rendering the mountain and his own journeys than into chafing about day-trippers. In better moods he can make this remote part of Maine sound inviting, and his prose sometimes assumes the lapidary quality of haiku. "The trees sleep," he writes in one passage. "Swayed by wind, a million birch leaves twitch and flutter like the eyelids of dreamers."

Scenery anywhere can be hard to share. But share he — and we — must, as he finally grudgingly acknowledges. Indeed, casual tourists and hard-core nature-lovers can agree with Pinder that "we seek the mountains to lift our spirits, to stand a little closer to the stars."

All true. It's just a shame this book is one too many lights short of a constellation.

The Map's Edge

"People need to know," a local tells lawyer-cum-author John Gimlette at the beginning of his treks in Labrador and Newfoundland, "that we're not quaint, we're not cute and we're not feckin' pixies."

And they never have been, it would seem. Whether Gimlette is writing about today or yesterday, those easternmost parts of Canada presented in his Theatre of Fish: Travels Through Newfoundland and Labrador (Knopf, $25) are rife with hardship, loss and uncertainty.

Retracing the steps of his great-grandfather, who visited the area in 1893, Gimlette both mines the province's history and offers a present-day tableau of life in these hard-bitten places. The aftermath of an 18th-century battle between the English and French left St. John's, the capital, "a stink of drinking-holes and offal." More recently, in 1992, severe shortages forced the closure of the cod fishery, thus upending the province's traditional livelihood. A dole began, and the population shrank. "For the first time ever," one resident tells Gimlette, "there was silence." In one northern town, he finds Inuit traditions have died out. "The children had no idea how to cut blubber," he writes, "or how to gnaw the meat off a skull."

Grim matter any way you slice it — but the stuff of a good travel book. If only Gimlette hadn't forsaken so much of the present for the lengthy past: He's largely after history here, but his personal adventures are what linger. At best, Gimlette's reportage is vivid and lively, and the almost impossible isolation of the province (look at it on a map!) emanates from the page. All too often, though, the book bogs down in extended historical yarns that could've been pared down or left out.

But one has to congratulate Gimlette for simply making his rough-and-tumble journey in the first place. Even though much of his book is a slog, I'll say this: Gimlette made me want to go, too.

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