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Leaning on Cedars
A young man's rite of passage in the wilderness
Leaning on Cedars
A Story of Initiation for Our Time
Rebuffed by a girlfriend and bored by the monotony of an unfulfilling job, Jason Chapman takes to the solace of the mountains. A modern day initiation, his quest for meaning leads him to the brink of death and to a new perspective on life.
This bold and beautifully written novel follows the young protagonist on a life-changing rite of passage. At age 21, Jason is unfulfilled, lacking direction, and coming off a bitter breakup. He resolves to make a fresh start, and a serendipitous encounter with a Native American elder named Chip introduces him to the notion of the Manitou, a traditional initiation of solitude in the wilderness.
Jason embarks on a solo expedition into the Rockies and finds himself trapped in a cave for days. In the terror of that confinement, the essence of who he believed himself to be is shattered. After a desperate attempt at escape and a fall off a snowy bluff he comes to consciousness on the floor of a hut. He is greeted by the man who saved his life, Charles. Jason begins to heal, and through conversations with this Good Samaritan finds new answers for the most human of questions: How does one lead a fulfilling life?
Reviews and endorsements
One of the remarkable features of modern American culture is that rites of passage— initiation ceremonies marking the transition from childhood to adulthood— have all but vanished. This makes modern American culture something of an anomaly, for initiation ceremonies have been a fixture in nearly all pre-modern societies. Often, the ceremony took the form of a vision quest, in which a young person was sent off into the wilderness, alone, to await a vision. What the ritual offered was the chance to put aside the influences of family, friends, and culture, and the chance to embark on adult life with an independent sense of purpose and direction.
Although the vision quest has largely disappeared from modern culture, it has been preserved in literature, and Andrew C. Shurtleff tells a gripping story of one man’s vision quest in his 2012 novel Leaning on Cedars. Shurtleff, who earned a doctorate from Columbia University in 2015, offers readers a thoughtful, discerning meditation on philosophy, spirituality, and the meaning of human existence, and the book’s subtitle—A Story of Initiation for Our Time—hints at an experience that has been updated and made relevant to the modern era.
The book’s protagonist is Jason Chapman, a twenty-one year old Coloradan who has come to a crossroads in life. His relationship with his girlfriend having come to an end, and he yearns for a fresh start, so he sets off on a solo backpacking trip in the wilderness of the Rockies in late March. The hike has an auspicious beginning, but soon a blizzard sets in, forcing Jason to struggle mightily against nature for his own survival.
Because Jason himself is a writer, readers have access to a doubly rich narrative—the story told by the omniscient narrator, and the story told through Jason’s journal entries, which provide a vivid sense of his thoughts during the unexpected ordeal. By turns metaphysical, philosophical, and spiritual, Leaning On Cedars presents us with the fruits of Jason’s harrowing experience, and, in the end, we come away inspired by Jason’s fortitude and penchant for self-examination, and awed by his single-minded pursuit of his destiny. As Shurtleff writes, “He was willing to take the risk, the chance to embrace his destiny, and would allow nothing to stand in his way.”
How do we awaken ourselves? How do we awaken others? Leaning on Cedars helps awaken something in us by evoking our many stories of initiation. I think Shurtleff’s writing helps us see. Relevant to us all—especially for those in their 20’s and 30’s—this book echoes our collective and urgent need for clear perception. To have written this story in his early twenties, you have to have your eyes wide open. Something about the idea of cedars moves me. We all need cedar trees. We all need to take time to stop and reflect. I wish I had written the book myself.”
—Maxine Greene, Professor Emerita, Columbia University
“Leaning on Cedars is an intelligent young man’s reflection on life and its meaning, captured in vignettes that are inspired by fictionalized versions of lived and virtual experience. Shurtleff uses fictional characters and situations to describe the working of his mind as he explores the mental processes by which he seeks to better understand himself without revealing to the reader the personal meanings of this struggle. But the focus on personal meaning is made unnecessary since, at several points, he makes reasonably clear the compass by which his travel is being guided. The author thoughtfully revisits points on this compass and celebrates them in the lives of his three key characters. His storyline is engaging. His use of dialogue is very effective. This young mind is esthetically agile as the author captures sense of place. This reader is drawn to this work by its natural talent that flows from a thoughtfully anchored mind. It is not often that we get to be privy to the mental and emotional struggles of an intelligent young male as he seeks to make sense of life. I found myself reading one line again and again: ‘To seek thyself and know thyself is to live and experience what the gift of wisdom brings to the soul.’ ”
—Edmund W. Gordon, John M. Musser Professor of Psychology Emeritus, Yale University
“Andrew Shurtleff has written a story filled with archetypes and brimming with wisdom beyond his years. He pours his rich inner life onto the pages, providing a glimpse into a soul dedicated to truth-seeking and truth-telling.”
—David Sloan, author of Life Lessons: Reaching Teenagers through Literature
“There are very few books in our days that strive to capture the deep moments of experiencing of a young mind. This book certainly does. Of course the times have changed since Goethe brought to his readers the overwhelming suffering of young Werther, but the basic quest for immediate human understanding remains a historical and transnational universal drama in which we all are players. Reading this book makes one want to be oneself—yet in a world which attempts to turn us all into obedient consumers of superficial news-bites, politicians' rhetoric claims which we know to be untrue, and so much more.”
—Jaan Valsiner, author of The Guided Mind