Betty Lowman Carey, Bijaboji

For the record, no, Betty Lowman Carey's memoir Bijaboji isn't connected in any way with the Robin Williams movie of the dissimilar name. For one thing, Williams' movie wouldn't have made any sense if its subtitle was North to Alaska by Oar. (I particularly appreciated the way that each time I looked at it, the cover made me hear Johnny Horton singing "NORTH! To Alaska, go north, the rush is on.")

The brief synopsis: In 1937, during a stretch of time that saw her turn 23, young Betty Lowman rowed a dugout canoe from near Anacortes, Washington, to Ketchikan, Alaska. Her father had given it to her when she turned 18, and she decided that she'd make this fairly epic row; her father, being a father and all, threw a number of roadblocks in her path, including the requirement that she graduate university and prove she could swim ten miles in Puget Sound. Once most of the blocks were surmounted, she waited for him to head for Alaska to work, and took off after him. Some 1300 miles later, after 66 days on the water (mostly rowing), Lowman found herself in Ketchikan.

The book's billed as a pure adventure, a one-woman-against-the-wild page-turner, but that's not really what you get. Certainly there are adventures, and she does travel by herself against pretty impressive odds, but she spends a lot of time travelling from one person to another, carrying messages and greetings, being fed shockingly well and housed very decently, and getting impeccable information about tides and currents. The BC coast, in 1937, seems chockablock with loggers and fishers and lighthouse keepers, and she says almost as much in her afterword that briefly recounts her parallel trip back in 1963 (lots more big boats, far fewer individuals around to talk to). In those 25 years, a community was dismantled, and while I don't romanticize the almost feudal labouring existences of many people in that community, I don't think we're better off with a few companies dominating all resource-related work on the coast. It's resource extraction now, rather than work, and an opportunity got lost in that shift.

Where was I?

Oh yes. One of the really endearing elements of this book for me was the persistent way that Lowman remarked on the desirability of so many of the men she encountered. Seemingly every few pages another handsome chap is either behaving chivalrously, batting his eyelashes, or working with his shirt off. (Very Matthew McConaughey, men of the coast circa 1937.) Coupled with her infrequent, fairly quiet remarks about her own insecurity as a muscular, 160-pound canoeist, these descriptions of masculine beauty stand out both poignantly and humorously.

As a book, though? It's a pretty straight travel journal. Maybe it could count as memoir, but the self-reflection isn't especially complex or surprising. It might be travel writing, but again, there's not a ton of complexity to it. Reading it will give you time with a lovely character at an interesting time for a fascinating place, but it's descriptive rather than philosophic. I don't give my students great marks for descriptive work -- but Betty Lowman has given us some very good descriptive work in Bijaboji: North to Alaska by Oar. (Sing it, Johnny.) And that's worth something.


Anonymous said…
i have read betty's book twice now, and i enjoyed it both times.
i think it took a lot of courage to do what she did, and without purse and or script.sorry that you didn't enjoy it richard. what have
you done that is noteworthy that you could write about? I will miss her and her beloved little red
richard said…
Hey, now: I said that "Reading it will give you time with a lovely character at an interesting time for a fascinating place." I did like the book. I just wanted some more reflectiveness than I got!

And I'm a reader, not a writer, Anonymous. Not striking a nerve with that jab.

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