Letters of Transit:
Adventures and Encounters
from America to the Pacific Isles
by Mathew Stevenson
Reviewed by Hannah Bowman
The Corny Dad Meets Modern Traveling
If nothing else, Matthew Stevenson is an extremely well traveled man. In his collection of short stories Letters of Transit: Adventures and Encounters from America to the Pacific Isles, he goes into detail on his experiences journeying and living abroad. Stevenson is a natural traveler, and, in a time when “ the tourist” has been specifically defined as an ignorant, overexcited foreigner carrying a camera, he attempts to show the pleasures of a more simple kind of appreciation for travel.
Stevenson, an American native, now lives in Switzerland with his wife and four children. Many of his essays speak of his experiences of the chaos that can occur as an American living abroad, especially with young children. With his endearing stories of the mesh between his children’s ideas of cross-culturalism and his own great understanding of many different societies, he refreshingly contrasts the current foreign perception of the ignorant American who would never survive living abroad.
He chronicles the time that he has spent in America as a young man, the time that he is currently spending in Switzerland with his family, the times that he has taken his family back to America, his travels throughout Europe, and many different scattered journeys throughout the rest of the world. His view on all of these trips is original and uncensored. It is clear that he has formed his own opinions on traveling and his stories and ideas are entertaining, to a point, and charming.
From the beginning of the collection, it is evident what kind of traveler Stevenson is. He is the appreciative tourist; he looks more for simplicity and culture as opposed to grand tourist attractions. He loves to relate what he has seen to what he has imagined in novels, and he critiques what tourism has become in his introduction. “I hate getting on and off tour buses, I hate the singsong patter of guides, and I refuse to follow anyone carrying a hat on top of an umbrella (xv).”
Instead, he advocates the idea of cheap traveling, and he doesn’t
like things that have been institutionalized or depersonalized, like traveling
in cars (he prefers bicycles, trains, or boats), air conditioning (why
not breath the native air?), and television (especially when books are
available). He defies what we think of as modern day traveling, even though
he tours and lives in very modern places, which puts a fresh spin on these
places, many of which we have started to think of in a solely economical,
Unfortunately, despite his innovative ideas on travel and tourism, the stories fall short on their attempts to be witty and referential. Often, the usage of cultural references to illustrate a point leaves the actual meaning behind in the dust. What do “doormen that look like they could date Mary Poppins” look like (168)? Why is it necessary to relate every dwarf—even dwarf rabbits—to Snow White? Although his metaphors sometimes are actually witty, those times come few and far between, and the others tend to just take up space. His excess far outweighs his actual imagery, and the book seems to have less personal meaning because of this.
Stevenson also does not put any deeper ethical or moral meaning in to these stories. He does not follow any sort of logical path with his points; I assume the way that he presents them is how they must progress sequentially in his mind. Because the stories do not connect, they can only be meant for description instead of stating a more profound idea. It is almost impossible to follow the ideas that Stevenson is trying to depict, and, after reading many of his stories, I realized that I had just read nothing deeper than Stevenson’s stream of consciousness.
Despite his excess witticisms and stereotypes, Stevenson’s stories are very easy to read. Many of the jokes are of the corny dad variety, and although I knew that they were awful, I thought of the remarks that my dad makes when he tries to impress people with his wealth of cultural knowledge and, at the same time, displays his corny charm. This triggered my typical reaction that I have to my father: groaning while chuckling to myself. Stevenson is very true to himself, and that comes across in his writing, making Letters of Transit a somewhat enjoyable read.
Letters of Transit: Adventures and Encounters from America to the Pacific Isles
(New York: Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2007)
ISBN: 978-1-84511-454-1. 392 pp.