Michael Quinn Patton
Michael Quinn Patton
by Michael Quinn Patton (Burkina Faso 1967–69)
Prometheus Books, $26.95
330 pages

Reviewed by Joe Kovacs (Sri Lanka 1997–98)

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Michael Quinn Patton's books are listed in the bibliography.

Part geological tour, part coming-of-age initiation, and part expose on the humanist philosophy, Michael Quinn Patton’s Grand Canyon Celebration successfully investigates the differences between modern initiation rites into adulthood and the rites practiced by communal tribes in the past. Patton is a sociologist who, among other influences, cites his experience with Gourma initiation rituals as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Burkina Faso. His investigation is conducted primarily through recollection of a Grand Canyon trek taken in 1991 with his son Brandon and their friend Malcolm Gray. At eighteen years old, Brandon is about to leave home for college, and Patton recognizes this opportunity to anoint him into manhood according to the modern tradition, which stresses individual awareness and knowledge. What results is a thoughtful account of conversation, friendship, and adventure.
     Patton is a fine guide through the canyon, easily recognizing the geological strata and their historical ages. Consider his appraisal of the
rock temples of Ottoman Amphitheater: “Each rises a half mile above the undulating grayness of the stark Tonto Platform, defying the eight-mile descent of Bright Angel Canyon. Each begins as sheer redwall that forms a massive foundation supporting a sense of sloping sedimentary rock terraces, the Supai.” He creates a wonderful contrast between the timelessness of the canyon and the transitory nature of individuals. Rites of initiation might change over time, but Patton acknowledges how the impact of history will weigh profoundly upon his son’s initiation in the present moment.
     It also certainly helps that his two companions are willingly involved in the canyon adventure. Young Brandon displays an energized intelligence that includes a love of music and a fondness for whimsy. He is both fascinated and horrified by his father’s account of the initiation rituals of the ancient Australian Pitjandjara people, which emphasize inflicting great physical pain upon the young man to test his strength and ability to defend the tribe. Brandon is staggered by the differences between ancient tribal rituals and his own initiation into adulthood, which requires no element of conformity. The third member of the group, Malcolm, is an experienced canyoneer and a longtime friend of Patton. His mystical perspective makes for interesting observations, such as when a bighorn wakes the travelers one morning and stares fixedly at Brandon. Malcolm explains that the bighorn is “a totem animal [who] connects you to the Great Mystery. It represents the ancestral spirit from which you’re descended.” Though Patton is incredulous, he treats the explanation humorously and allows Brandon to make his own decision regarding the truth.
     Patton writes that his particular role in Brandon’s initiation will require him to undergo a process of detox,’ whereby he unloads his mind of all worldly concerns while in the canyon. This is only one of several examples where Patton self-consciously creates circumstances he feels are critical to the ritual. His son teases him about all his planning, but it takes Patton a while to realize that the journey is not only about his son’s initiation into adulthood. It is also about his own changing role in the world. Only when Patton expresses aloud his concern about Brandon leaving home for college does he realize he has some personal fears he must face during this time.
     Evenings in the canyon are spent reading extracts from Robert Bly’s Iron John, a historical story dating back to the Brothers Grimm. Brandon provides engaging interpretations of the story’s events according to their expressions of courage, responsibility, sexuality, and money. One pivotal element concerns the appearance of the wild man who simultaneously represents a deviant figure and an individual of generosity and justice. The wild man seems to call into question definitions of civilization and individuality, which parallel Patton’s own interest in tribal rituals and rites of individuals. The wild man is frequently discussed during the trek.
     By the end of the ten days, one senses that the three travelers have considered their journey a success. It has been a memorable and symbolic experience, and everyone — including the reader — leaves the Grand Canyon with new knowledge and insight. The book concludes with a somewhat extraneous discourse on the fundamentals of humanism, stressing the freedoms of individuals over those of groups. But the epilogue is not as important as the fact that the three adults have emerged to celebrate their canyon journey. And Brandon has emerged as a man ready to face the world on his own two feet.
Joe Kovacs is press relations coordinator for NAFS (National Association of International Educators), in Washington. D.C.
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