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‘The Wind is Not a River’: epic war story in the Aleutians
Brian Payton’s powerful novel “The Wind is Not a River” revisits the little-known story of the Japanese occupation of the Aleutian Islands in World War II. Payton reads Jan. 29 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. and Jan. 30 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “The Wind is Not a River” will appear at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 29, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600; elliottbaybook.com). He will read at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 30, at Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333; thirdplacebooks.com).
The Japanese occupation of the Aleutian Islands was one of the least-known aspects of World War II, thanks to a U.S. government censorship campaign designed to forestall civilian panic about enemy encroachment on American soil. Nevertheless, recapturing those few square miles of isolated islands was considered a strategic imperative, and the effort required a massive expenditure of time, resources and lives.
Vancouver, B.C., author Brian Payton has chosen the remote island of Attu, and the time frame of spring 1943, as the context for his powerful new novel, “The Wind is Not a River” (Ecco, 320 pp., $26.99). The title, which trades on the Aleutians’ reputation as “birthplace of the winds,” poses a riddle that is not easily solved.
There’s perhaps some irony in the names of the protagonists in this story — neither John nor Helen Easley finds the going easy. John is a journalist who has gotten around the government’s press blackout by ditching his press credentials and bluffing his way aboard a bombing run over the Japanese-occupied islands.
But on the very first page, John is regaining consciousness on a snowy Attu beach after the plane he was riding in has been shot down. He and the only other survivor will have to fend for themselves in harsh conditions while evading detection by the Japanese forces stationed there. Their prospects are bleak.
Meanwhile, 3,000 miles away in Seattle, Helen is worried. She had quarreled with her husband about his compulsion to head back up north to report on a story that the government wants kept quiet. Now she hasn’t heard from him in weeks. She contacts his editors, colleagues, friends — but no one has information.
Helen resolves to quit her job and go search for him herself. And in a time of government restrictions, limited transportation and sparse cash, the only way she figures she can do this is by joining a USO musical review bound for Alaska to entertain the troops. This requires that she trump up her very limited experience as a performer — but Helen is determined to do whatever it takes to find her man.
This thoughtfully conceived novel is part war epic, part love story. It’s an odyssey turned inside out, in which the wife sets off on a quest far from home while her battle-scarred husband, day in and day out, tends the flickering fire in his cave.
Combining these his-and-her stories of mettle, juxtaposing constancy with adaptive flux, Payton emerges with a metaphorical alloy of survival.
Yet traveling from camp to camp in the USO show, Helen can’t help but wonder, “How many millions of lives have been diverted by this war? Unlike the tally of ships, dollars or casualties, there is no math for personal losses ... No restitution for what could have been.”
The pages of this book practically turn themselves, the compelling narrative flow only hitching up a bit when John suffers hallucinations, which is logical to the story line, considering his compromised health, but makes for a bumpier read. By turns greathearted and grim, “The Wind Is Not a River” probes the reasons for, and the consequences of, the human practice of war. While it doesn’t provide the answers, this story may haunt you long after you’ve put the book down.