Book review: ‘Tales of the South Pacific: The Novel’

By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton

"Tales of the South Pacific" was Michener’s first work of fiction and it won a Pulitzer Prize. Published in 1947, it offered a graphic picture of the then recent war against the Japanese. The narrator, a Navy officer responsible for important person-to-person communication, offers first-person descriptions of the people and experiences he encountered as the United States began the challenge of controlling the islands critical to taking Japan.

Each “tale,” essentially a short story, is based on a particular experience and usually revolves around a particular person and a particular personality type. For example, early in the book, a New Zealand officer, an ally, is described as, “It was difficult to like Grant. He was the type of New Zealander who repels rather than attracts.” None the less, he was respected because he was correct in his assessments, courageous, knew the Japanese, and had a vested interest in stopping the Japanese war machine before it invaded New Zealand.

As horrible as the battles were in the Pacific, perhaps worse was the waiting. It took weeks of planning and preparation before an invasion finally took place. All of the moving parts had to be assembled and stored at a nearby location; in the case of the Pacific, at another island. Military men had to be there well in advance, and for them, the waiting began upon arrival, with most not even aware of what they were waiting or preparing for.

Occasionally the waiting led to the “screaming meemies, the rock jollies or being island happy.” That’s not to underrate the battles themselves, as they invariably involved a beach landing against heavily fortified positions and an enemy literally trained that fighting to the last man was the only honorable thing to do. If you fail, you must fall on your sword.

One of the many heroes of the Pacific was the volunteer who lived on an island in the midst of the Japanese Army and relayed invaluable information regarding troop and fleet movement via radio. Since he was well aware that it couldn’t end well for him, what gave him that kind of courage?

“The things Anderson does, don’t add up to an ordinary man. Why does a good man like him come out here in the first place? How does he have the courage?”

The whole idea of the man remained a mystery as inevitably his transmissions stopped, and he was later found beheaded. How, indeed, does any good man have the courage to …? ‘Tales of the South Pacific’doesn’t answer that question, but it does profile several good men, and a few women.

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