The Wind Is Not a River
- Brian Payton
- 320 pp.
- Reviewed by Liam Callanan
- January 27, 2014
During a little-known moment in World War II history — the Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Chain — a husband and wife struggle to find each other amid the violence.
Remember that part of World War II where the Japanese invaded the United States, conquered a small swath of American territory, kidnapped and imprisoned American citizens, and fought pitched battles for months to defend and extend the American soil it occupied?
Didn’t think so.
And yet it happened. Not at Pearl Harbor — which, despite the devastating surprise attack, never fell — but about six months later and 2,300 miles north, when Japanese forces bombed Alaska’s Amaknak Island, and later invaded two islands farther west on the Aleutian Chain. The American citizens on those islands — most of them Aleut people — were taken west to Japan. U.S. forces, meanwhile, evacuated Aleut people from the rest of the Chain, relocating them far to the east in the temperate rainforests of the Alaskan panhandle — in other words, like nothing the Aleuts had ever known.
Thousands fought in this campaign; thousands died. As Brian Payton, author of the novel The Wind Is Not a River, reports in the author’s note that concludes his book, “In proportion to the number of men engaged, it was surpassed only by Iwo Jima as the most costly American battle in the Pacific Theater.” Even more astounding is that many of those deaths — and for Americans, perhaps the majority — were due less to enemy action than to the extraordinarily harsh conditions. (Those interested in learning more should consult Brian Garfield’s compulsively readable history, The Thousand-Mile War, one of several sources Payton cites in his acknowledgements.)
Today, however, few people know much about this strange chapter of World War II, largely because at the time the U.S. military banned almost all independent press coverage of the campaign. Not that storytellers weren’t on hand: noir novelist Dashiell Hammett spent much of his war in the Aleutians and no less than John Huston directed a short propaganda film for the Army about the experience of soldiers there.
And to this cast author Payton adds John Easley, a Seattle-based journalist whose previous experience in the Aleutians was limited to a National Geographicassignment. But then the war comes; then the war claims his brother’s life; and then, despite repeated attempts by the American government to rebuff him, Easley sneaks back in, with the aid of a pilot who is indignant that the full horrors of America’s “forgotten” or “invisible” war aren’t more accurately reported.
Easley takes a big risk, but Payton takes even bigger ones throughout this thoughtful, meticulously observed novel. Though the easy path for a novelist with a character who’s a reporter is to send him off reporting, Easley never gets a chance, parachuting from a plummeting plane into a desolate (but beautifully described) landscape, unable to get word to the outside world. Then Payton raises the creative stakes even higher, and removes almost every other human character from the set, leaving his protagonist onstage alone. Where’s the drama?
Part of it comes from a small Japanese garrison nearby, but the cat-and-mouse game the soldiers play with Easley is more true to history than to novelistic convention: predator and prey rarely cross paths. What pulls us through the novel is the counter-narrative, which follows the trials of Easley’s young wife Helen as she sets off in search of her husband. The military strictly limits travel to Alaska during wartime, and so Helen has to be creative, reinventing herself as a singer and joining a USO troupe headed north.
Payton is merciless with his readers — he brings Helen and Easley tantalizingly close, again and again, only to have them miss — but quite tender with his characters. “Some men,” Easley muses, staring at the bleak, gray Aleutian horizon, “have the great misfortune to stand at life’s continental divide and see that the land beyond is barren. There is no hope of turning back. What does one do with this view?”
The answer comes soon enough. Some men — Easley — do find reason for hope, and still others — author Payton now chief among them — find enormous if shattering beauty in the forbidding view the Aleutians afford.
Liam Callanan is the author of The Cloud Atlas, which is also set in WWII Alaska, and All Saints, which is not. His new book, a short-story collection, is forthcoming from Four Way Books in 2015. For more, visit liamcallanan.com.