Reviews of Rogue River Journal: A Winter Alone
February 15, 2005
A candid but polished sojourn into solitude and memory.
Late in 2000, poet and essayist Daniel (Winter Creek, 2002, etc) took himself deep into the backcountry of Oregon for a few months of solitude, to a cabin without electricity or neighbors, tucked into a canyon with forested slopes. The Rogue River slid by within earshot, and there was a meadow to watch for the comings and goings of wildlife. Daniel was there to see how he might grow, what he might learn, from the quietude, but he got distracted. The memory of his father, Franz Daniel, was a prime diversion and puzzle. Franz was an intellectual with rural roots, a union organizer of uncommon zeal and charisma, drawn to the ministry but more so to applied religion, social justice, decency—and the bottle. As Daniel goes about his distracted way—dueling with the turkey that's eating his garden goods, tendering a theory of grouse (they know when a human in their midst has a gun), reveling in the visit of a bobcat, coming to "love the lit particularities of things, their jags and curves and rough or silky textures, the exactly this that they present"—he quarries his father's life, finding in it an enormous, nurturing good, even while the house he grew up in was one of drunkenness and anger. Then, too, his own life beckons, urging him to quit the fretting, "do what you're doing," live the moment. Still, he'll look long and hard at the path that has brought him to this juncture, his own strong and weak suits—the question of courage won't go begging in these pages—that brought into being whatever resources of attention and creative association he now possesses.
Daniel's time alone is potent, a dilation on the amusements and scorchings of the simple life, and a distillation of the strange, human group that was his family.
May 29, 2005
Edward C. Wolf
"I came not to forget my ghosts, but to remember them," writes poet and essayist John Daniel of his purpose in withdrawing to the solitude of a cabin in the Rogue River Canyon for four and a half months in the winter of 2000-2001.
His particular ghosts are just a few of the companions that Daniel evokes in the graceful memoir Rogue River Journal: A Winter Alone. Though he may be cooking for one, the author seasons his account with descriptions of thieving ground squirrels, insouciant turkeys, elusive steelhead, coppery madrone trees ("the only tree I desire to eat"), and "the good, green, terrible river" itself that make his chosen neighborhood seem anything but deserted.
Three themes braid like a river's channels through Daniel's account of 134 days at Dutch Henry Homestead, a writers retreat in the Klamath Mountains of Southern Oregon. He writes of the place, and the creative ebb and flow of his work there. He writes of his father, labor organizer Franz Daniel. And, shadowed always by Franz's presence, he writes of his own coming-of-age in the 1960s.
Constructed as a diary, Rogue River Journal deftly alternates among its themes, keeping the reader curious about which story line the next entry will advance. Honesty about the retreat ("Some days this just feels hard. Why have I chosen to exile myself?") and disarming self-acceptance ("I exhibited some of the poorer behaviors of the decade, and some of the better, and a good deal of plain sixties silliness.") nurture the reader's trust in Daniel's portrait of his father, a larger-than-life union activist who eventually came to terms with his alcoholism but couldn't protect himself or his family from its fallout.
Rogue River Journal carries forward a project of family memoir that Daniel began in Looking After, his 1996 account of his mother Zilla's struggle with Alzheimer's. Zilla and Franz made an extraordinary couple, strong-willed individualists who engaged with gusto in the political struggles of the last century. Along the way, they raised two sons and lost a third in a household that hopscotched across the country answering the organizing needs of the labor movement.
"When we moved to Glen Echo in 1958, my father was fifty-four, my mother was fifty, and they were buying their first house," Daniel writes. "They would share it, more or less, for six years, by far their longest tenure in one home. But for my mother by then, it wasn't about staying put any more. It was about escaping. And for my father in those years, it was about trying to hold on—to his marriage, to his career, and finally to his dignity iself."
When Daniel writes that today's Rogue River, with its dwindling salmon and uneven water quality, "embodies a complicated truth, partly fallen, partly pristine, entirely itself," one sees a nuanced grasp of the natural world shaped by the challenging currents of his childhood.
Sparing details of neither his father's flaws or his own, Daniel evokes a man still worthy of admiration and love: "My father was an American optimist. He looked for the infield single, the sacrifice bunt, a walk here and a stolen base there."
"Democracy," wrote E.B.White, "is the score at the beginning of the ninth." Throughout Rogue River Journal, one senses that the father's restless spirit stirs in the more introspective son. One senses that for Daniel, like his father, "it is and always will be the beginning of the ninth."
This honest, satisfying memoir is a fine gift from a writer whose ghosts accepted his invitation to the madrone-shaded homestead above the Rogue.
Rogue River Journal touches, more than a little, the fountains of glory in wild lands skirting the Rogue River. It touches another kind of glory also, and with equal elegance—the past, the relationship between a son and a father, as John Daniel recalls, with honesty, flamboyance, tenderness and true regard for his father's life, his own journey toward manhood. It is an extraordinary book.