|cover credit: CreateSpace Publishing|
CreateSpace Publishing (2013)
Reviewed by Brigette Bernagozzi
R. A. Voss’s essay collection, We Never Travel Alone, has been accurately billed as an all-in-one book that nonfiction readers with tight schedules and chaotic lives always seek. And, indeed, it is a mixture of “Travel/Nature/Memoir/History,” as the book’s back cover proclaims.
The introduction is less elegant than the rest; its earnest hopes for the reader to learn something from its pages gives an appearance of a thesis proposal. However, each chapter is well-crafted and inviting. Some are suspenseful, like “Buttermilk Road” with its opening confession: “Something happened that day … Something I never told anyone.” A few offer humor, including the tongue-in-cheek opening to an insomnia chapter: “Will I get lucky tonight?”
At the heart of each chapter, Voss invites readers to travel the world with her as she charts geographical locations such as the Anne of Green Gables historic site on Canada’s Prince Edward Island, her ancestors’ hometown in northern Germany, and her brother’s archaeological dig site in Israel. And that’s before factoring in the Iowa landscape where she was raised. But not all of Voss’s travels feature traditional globetrotting. Her chapter “My Solitary Journey to the Deep” leads readers into the realms of deep sleep. Or, more accurately, into the no man’s land that lies on the other side of a good night’s slumber—one disrupted by blaring alarm clocks, a snoring husband, and the near-constant urge to pee. And in “Bragging Rights,” Voss shows both literal and metaphorical journeys when strains of discord emerge during a boat trip with her then-husband.
Voss raises the stakes in her devastating chapter “Disruptions.” Here, during a visit to observe nesting birds, she refers frequently to the work of Rachel Carson, famed author of Silent Spring—the book that first revealed to the masses potential complications linked with the widespread use of the insecticide DDT. Carson’s work crops up during Voss’s discussion of “environmental endocrine disrupter chemicals” and the devastation they once caused the mating rituals of bald eagles. Readers witness these difficulties in the natural world through the eyes of a woman who hopes to experience motherhood but whose natural cycles, much like those of the eagles she seeks to protect, have been thwarted. In an example of the author’s seamless transition between the personal and the global, she confides:
“I have missed feeling their first kicks inside my womb. I have missed feeling their soft warmth nestled against my chest. I have missed their sticky faces and their muddy little hands. I have missed my unborn children each time a child of one of my friends, born near the time one of mine would have been born, passes through any of the milestones that mark a child’s journey through life” (127).Naturally, the memoir label applies to this book due to reflective passages like this one, as well as several chapters regarding the author’s childhood in Iowa. In “The Road to Recovery,” a chapter that braids her grandparents’ lives with the economics of the Great Depression, she offers this commentary on present-day Iowa:
“One can take a drive through the countryside in any county in Iowa and find the landscape still dotted with now-defunct windmills standing like sentries over the land” (59).Here, as in many other places in We Never Travel Alone, Voss’s practiced eye and straightforward yet imaginative prose allow readers to find beauty in a seemingly wasted landscape.
All in all, Voss’s collection of dazzling journeys is impressive in its scope. Although constantly surrounded by appealing locals and fellow travelers, she manages to craft a series of thoughtful meditations on a diverse array of places. Whether ruminating on a surprising act of violence in a Buddhist monastery or exploring notions of motherhood during a road trip to visit nesting eagles, Voss proves a thoughtful tour guide and, most importantly, a worthy companion for any armchair traveler.