Can you judge a book by its cover? No. You can’t. Gazing at the cover of sea kayaking adventurer Jon Turk’s The Raven’s Gift (2009), I envisioned a tale of an arduous sea trek along the icy coast of Kamchatka. And Jon did kayak there. But that’s not what the book is about. The book details Jon’s inner journey from the mundane world of civilization to the Real World and the Other World.
The book starts in 1970, when Jon was a chemist stuck in a lab. While walking with his dog, he puts his face in some freshly dug dirt, smells the sweet earth, and is changed forever. Senses awakened, he is now connected to the primordial earth spirit. Thirty years later, he and paddling partner Misha Petrov kayak in a storm along the Kamchatka coast and crash land on a beach near a town called Vyvenka, home of Koryak people—reindeer herders. That is the last significant kayaking that Jon does in The Raven’s Gift. They are befriended by villagers and Jon meets Moolynaut, an elderly shaman who supposedly caused them to come to Vyvenka so Jon’s hip, injured in an avalanche, could be healed.
Since Jon is a scientist, he has a hard time believing that an old woman like Moolynaut can fix his damaged hip, when western medicine couldn’t. She indicates that he will be healed by magic through intercession of the messenger god, Kutcha the raven. This clash between shamanism and western logic is the crux of the book.
Jon consents to partake in a healing ritual which involves ingestion of magic mushrooms (amanita muscaria). To find out if his hip is repaired, if he crosses the frozen Siberian tundra in the Real World, and if he journeys into another dimension in the Other World, you will have to read the book. I will say he develops a relationship with ravens, which become his totem animal. I will also say the book deals with life and death in an icy environment.
If I had to compare Jon’s book with a similar non-fiction work, it would have to be Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, wherein Carlos is tutored in the ways of Yaqui sorcery by Don Juan Matus, who gives Carlos peyote and datura. The obvious similarities lie in that both Jon and Carlos took psychedelics to reach the Other World, both authors were taught by traditional native people, and ravens and other totem animals figure prominently. The difference is that Jon learned about healing from a shaman and Carlos learned about power from a sorcerer—white magic versus black magic.
Another difference is Jon’s story rings true, while Carlos’ tale seems too fantastic to be based on actual occurrences. Castaneda’s book, though a best-seller, has been criticized as fiction masquerading as fact. One other difference—Carlos has a whiny tone to his writing and is always skeptical of Don Juan’s teaching until he gets his ass kicked. Jon, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry and is admittedly influenced by his past learning, is respectful of his teacher and tries his best to understand what he is experiencing. In my opinion, Jon’s book is far superior to Carlos’. But you should judge for yourself.
Here is an excerpt from The Raven’s Gift: “Even the most cynical Western observer has to appreciate that Stone Age hunters survived through keen observation of their surroundings and intimate connectivity with the landscape and its creatures. And out here, I felt that if people opened their senses wide enough and became sufficiently in tune with their surroundings, I have no trouble believing that they could make tribal pacts with wolves.”
In conclusion, this well-written book centers on the apparent dichotomy of logic versus magic, of the Real World versus the Other World. Does Jon bounce back and forth from logic to magic or is he able to find unity in the two concepts? I literally can’t say. I do know the book builds in intensity and certain events occur that made it so I could not put it down.
If you are looking for a book from a sea kayaker who thinks like we do and who embarks on a long journey of transformative self-discovery, then you will benefit from reading The Raven’s Gift. I did.
The Raven’s Gift is available in bookstores and online at outlets such as Amazon. Eirik the Red says “Check it out!”