Desperate to understand the war that claimed the life of his brother, journalist John Easley heads to the Territory of Alaska to investigate the Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands, a story censored by the U.S. government, while the wife he left behind is forced to reimagine who she is and what she is capable of doing after he disappears. (historical fiction).
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Author One-on-One: Nancy Pearl and Brian Payton
Nancy Pearl is a librarian and lifelong reader. She regularly comments on books on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.
Nancy Pearl: How did you become interested in this pretty much unknown aspect of World War II?
Brian Payton: I first came across the story of the war in the Aleutians when I lived in Alaska in the early 1980s. In my late teens and early twenties, I found that there had been several histories written about the war in Alaska, but could find little fiction. I’ve known since then that the events of 1942-1943, in what was then the Territory of Alaska, could serve as an incredible backdrop for a novel.
The facts themselves are remarkable. On June 3, 1942, the Japanese Imperial Navy bombed Dutch Harbor in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. Four days later, a force of nearly 2,500 Japanese troops seized and held Attu and Kiska, two of the outermost islands. The people of Attu—U.S. citizens—were taken prisoner and sent to Japan. The remaining Aleut people were evacuated by the U.S. military and interned in southeast Alaska. For the next eleven months, U.S. forces sustained an aerial campaign against the Japanese-held positions. Then, in 1943, one of the toughest battles of the war took place to recapture Attu. In proportion to the number of men engaged, it ranked second only to Iwo Jima as the most costly American battle in the Pacific Theater. It was the only battle fought on North American soil.
NP: Why do you think these pretty horrific events in the Aleutian Islands aren’t more widely known?
BP: At the time, it was impossible to hide the basic facts of these events from the general public, but the powers that be worked to ensure they were downplayed or ignored. Journalists were ordered out of the Territory, military censorship was drum-tight, and most of the campaign was fought beyond view of the civilian press. What information was available was tightly controlled. There are numerous reasons for this, including the government’s desire to not raise the alarm among the civilian population of the west coast of North America. It was important for civilians to believe that the war was being fought overseas. The idea was that we should fight and settle it “over there” before it reached our shores. The war in Alaska threatened that narrative. From the U.S. perspective, the campaign itself was fraught with problems and was seen as something of an embarrassment. The U.S. military gambled on the fact that they could contain and ultimately defeat the enemy there. History proves them right.
Because there was relatively little press about it at the time, these events quickly faded from public consciousness after the war.
NP:You’ve written both fiction and nonfiction before. Did you ever consider writing this as nonfiction?
BP: I wanted to tell this story in the form of a novel. The historical, nonfiction account of the events had already been written. In my work, I wanted to get at something else. I wanted both the writing and reading experience to be felt deeply, personally. To help us make sense of what happened in the past, we often reach for fiction in order to help try and grasp the meaning (or face the meaninglessness) of certain events. The great war novels help us understand WWII, the Vietnam War, etc., in ways nonfiction rarely does.
Many of the servicemen who served in the territory came home to a country that had heard little or nothing about their fight and their sacrifice. Many of the men returning from the Aleutians were met with blank stares and sometimes disbelief when they told their stories to the people back home. When I began work on this book, I wanted to shine light into a hidden corner of history and to answer some questions. Why were the journalists expelled from the war in Alaska? What happened to the American and Japanese soldiers? What became of the civilians caught in between? I set out to write the definitive, dramatic history of this chapter of the war.
But a funny thing happened along the way to completing that book. The story began to take on a life of its own. The characters came alive, asserted their hopes, fears and dreams, and the novel bloomed into something far more beautiful—a personal story of physical and existential survival. A story about the limits of the human spirit and the enduring power of love.Review:
An Amazon Best Book of the Month, January 2014: At the start of this ambitious and earnest novel, a World War II journalist named John Easley parachutes safely from his doomed plane and finds himself on the Japanese-occupied Aleutian island of Attu, "unaccountably, alive and whole." Adds our narrator: "And so it begins." Indeed it does. Like all great novels, The Wind Is Not a River (a vague title that doesn't serve its story well enough) is many things at once: a mystery, a war story, a love story, and, at its core, a tale of survival. Scenes alternate between Easley and his wife, Helen, who leaves their Seattle home to join an Alaska-bound USO troupe, hoping to somehow find him. While Helen's efforts are a necessary counter-balance to Easley's days of strife, the scenes on Attu are the most compelling, and heartbreaking. In fact, the island itself becomes a character, a desolate, ancient, grumpy mound of ice and rock, sand and grass. Easley joins forces with a fellow survivor, and, like Tom Hanks in Castaway, they craft a makeshift home in a cave, foraging for seaweed, mussels, the occasional fish or sea bird. Both men are soon wasting away, in mind and body. Payton pens some lovely, sober moments. Scanning the horizon for ships, Easley sees an empty sea and "only smug birds skirting the shore. More of nothing, nothing more." Though we learn Easley is mourning a younger brother, killed in the war in Europe, he is initially unknowable. Even his comrade wonders, "who the hell are you?" In his fight for survival, sustained by an unearthed photograph of a young Aleutian woman, Easley finds an answer to that question. --Neal Thompson
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