April 2006

Colleen Mondor

nonfiction

Rogue River Journal: A Winter Alone by John Daniel

I was attracted to John Daniel’s Rogue River Journal because the idea of a writer going to an isolated cabin for four months and strictly focusing on the story he wanted to tell (or in this case two stories) is oddly appealing to me. It is something I doubt I will ever do but I wondered how that kind of solitary introspection would affect Daniel’s method and goals. I wondered if he would end up writing the books he planned to write. I did not expect to read the kind of memoir/natural history primer/thoughtful study of solitude that Daniel ended up writing. Interestingly enough, by the end it is pretty clear that Daniel didn’t plan to write this book either. Unexpected things happen when you don’t have any distractions or places to hide from your past (or present). The miracle of this book is just how powerful and impressive those things are, and how wonderfully Daniel has managed to convey the whole experience to his very grateful readers.

It started with a plan to write two books, one on his coming of age in the '50s and '60s with a father who was a powerful member of the American labor movement and a second about the solitude experiment he was happily immersing himself in. Ultimately these two ideas collided, forming an opportunity for Daniel to give an introspective and provocative look at both himself and his father. Honestly, I did not expect to be so fascinated by the journey back in time that this man took. The addition of his journal entries chronicling life in the cabin just made the book that much more prescient and his personal conclusions that much more sincere.

Daniel’s father was a notable enough member of the American labor movement to generate an enormous amount of files and personal papers in college collections. The author had a lot of help when it came to figuring out just where his father was at certain times in his life and what he was doing. The emotional history is all Daniel’s, but there are no questions about what his father did professionally because the written history is there to tell that part of the story. What Daniel wants to understand is just who his father was, what kind of man he was, and from that he hopes to figure out just what kind of man he himself has always been.

It’s the most universal search for self that Daniel is on in this book, a search that he confronts head-on throughout the narrative in passages like this: “But writing aside, or writing included, it seems I’m still doing at fifty-two what I was doing at twenty-two -- trying to discover who I am. Progress? Well, I’ve holed up in the backwoods of southwestern Oregon for seven weeks and discovered that I am… myself!”

It’s funny at first but then the stark realization hits the reader just as Daniel struggles with it: what if this is all there is? What if we never are going to figure out any deeper meaning to ourselves or the world around us? It’s like that scene in As Good As It Gets when Jack Nicholson looks at all the other patients waiting to see their psychiatrist and asks them “what if this is it? What if this is as good as it gets?” And you know all those people are depressed as hell at the thought -- that’s why they’re seeing a psychiatrist in the first place, isn’t it? They want more, from someone or someplace. We all want more; some of us just go into the woods to try and find it.

In succeeding chapters Daniel chronicles not only his days in the woods but also tracks simultaneous paths through his father’s life and his own. He remembers finding himself terribly confused in college, with no idea as to what he should do there. “When I asked myself why I was in college, the reasons I could locate all had to do with the desires and expectations of others -- my father, my mother, my aunts, my teachers in high school. I could find no reason native to myself.” He left Reed College and began a classic 1960s journey into drugs and protesting and refusal to submit to the draft. That Daniel did this in the most traditional and honorable way possible does not diminish the inner conflict it leaves him with even decades later. No one knew what the right thing to do was back then, just as no one knows now. You do what you think is right and you hope for the best, a grey area that the son of Franz Daniel was not used to navigating and left him often adrift and uncertain as he looked for the best place for himself in the world. He writes:

Pacifism, of course, was an especially touchy subject in my self-debates. I suspected I wasn’t a pacifist. I thought it ridiculous and grotesque to kill or be killed under the banner of stopping Communism several thousand miles across the Pacific Ocean. The North Vietnamese and Vietcong had done no harm to America, and no utterance by he-of-the-big-ears had come close to convincing me that we needed to harm them. But -- if there was a real threat to the United States, or if the western world was in danger as it had been in World War II, I would fight. I thought I would fight. I hoped I would. How could I know what I would do unless I was there, in a foxhole, on patrol or ambush? I hoped I wouldn’t turn and run, like the protagonist in The Red Badge of Courage, but maybe I would. I did have a less-than-brave-record. Did my objections to the war conceal a simple lack of courage?

It’s a question he can not answer in the present at the Rogue River, just as he couldn’t answer it so many years before. How does anyone know if they are brave until they have been tested and how ironic that Daniel wonders if he would be brave in combat when another writer from his generation, Tim O’Brien, insists that he was a coward for going to Vietnam, for not being brave enough to refuse to fight.

I do not know that much about the history of labor unions and found that aspect of Rogue River to be especially fascinating. Franz Daniel was part of the labor movement at a time when people were fighting on the picket lines, when unions were life saving and vital and necessary. We forget that it is unions who gave us the 8-hour day and 40-hour week and a host of benefits that we all take for granted (unless you work for Wal-mart). Growing up in the shadow of a man who literally put his life on the line for other people was an intense experience for Daniel and one he relishes exploring further in his book. The problem, and there is always a family drama lurking behind such significant professional lives, was that Franz Daniel was an alcoholic. This brought enormous chaos to the lives of the people who loved him and in the case of his sons, all too often drove them away.

In many ways Rogue River Journal transcends the genre of memoir by touching on so many different subjects and detailing not only the personal life of the author but also the history of the Rogue River Canyon and the people and wildlife who have made it their home. If you think this is just a book about a man and his father then you would be missing something special here, something unique and well worth your time. Having said that though, I have to admit that in many ways it seemed to me to be at least partially a long overdue love letter from son to father, a chance to acknowledge that in spite of everything wrong between them, there was also much that was right.

“…I think about him in the summer of 1969 in Springfield, too -- not yet three weeks sober, depressed, waking up earlier than he wanted to each morning in his small downstairs bedroom, everyday wanting a drink, wanting that old estranged reliable friend, the only one that he knew how to put him at east -- and turning instead to the events of his day, his twelve-step work, his AA brothers and sisters, his many concerns for his household, his family, his community, his country. What I saw dimly then I see clearly now. My father, a brave man all his life, summoned his greatest courage in his last years, when he flat refused to summon it from a bottle.”

That passage is on page 259, and that is when I realized just how great of a writer John Daniel truly is.

There are so many moments in this book that impressed me; when Daniel wrote about the men at the logging camp who taught him about pride, or childhood classmate Susan Landay, the girl who bravely stood before class reciting the mandatory morning Lord’s Prayer in Hebrew as her personal moment of defiance, or when he admitted the moment he let his father down, he failed to respond to his pained words for help and lost the chance to fix it forever when his father died too soon. It’s all emotional and honest and riveting writing, it’s all wonderful to read. I am very impressed by John Daniel and I feel fortunate to have found his writing at last.

Rogue River Journal: A Winter Alone by John Daniel
Shoemaker & Hoard
ISBN 1593760515
345 pages