Though few people realize it, part of World War II was fought on American soil. More than half a million people took part in the War of the Aleutians and an estimated 10,000 died. Only the Battle of Iwo Jima was more costly than the Battle of Attu, one of the Aleutian Islands. Yet history records little of this war tragedy.
"The Wind Is Not A River" (Ecco, $26.99) by Brian Payton is likely to change this oversight. A masterful novel, this work intertwines two equally compelling stories: a portrayal of the harsh realities of war drawn directly from history and a fictional tale of the challenging love of a complex couple torn apart by that war. The result is a gripping novel to be cherished and passed on to anyone who appreciates fine writing.
First, some background. On June 3, 1942, the Japanese Imperial Navy bombed Dutch Harbor, located in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. On June 7 almost 2,500 Japanese combat troops invaded two of the islands, Attu and Kiska. On Attu, the Japanese took 44 native Aleuts and two non-natives prisoner. They killed one man and sent the rest off to Japan.
The American military responded by rounding up the 881 Aleut natives remaining in the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands and sending them to southeast Alaska. The military destroyed villages, separated families and isolated people to areas where they did not know how to work or live. These interned Aleuts had no option other than to accept the substandard conditions and hope for the rapid end of the war. Though the military depicted this as an effort to protect these natives, the actual goal was to prevent the Japanese from capturing them and using them as a way to gain information and entry into the American mainland.
For eleven months American forces bombed the Japanese footholds in the Aleutians. The bloody forays took a heavy toll from both forces. Yet these battles raged without the awareness of the American public. Journalists were banned. The only news was heavily censored military reports which conveyed no information. Relatives waited months for some word from enlisted men, often not even sure where the men were based. Those who did return came home with missing feet and legs, nightmares, deep depression and dark moods which loved ones seldom could penetrate.
The internments and the battles have been recorded by others before Payton. His, however, is a fresh and vivid look at this forgotten history. To that end he creates journalist John Easley and his wife Helen, a couple at war with each other and themselves. Easley's brother dies in the war, and Easley decides he will honor his brother by going to the Aleutians and reporting the untold real story of the conflict. Just before he leaves he and Helen have a fight and she tells him if he goes she does not want him to come back.
Easley wears his brother's Canadian uniform to deceive the military censors and joins the air fighters. His plane is shot down on Attu but he and a young 19-year-old officer survive the crash. Together they must find a way to elude the Japanese, stay warm enough and get enough food to survive, and find a way to reconnect with the American troops. It is the description of this harrowing experience which is the best-written and most vivid of the images in the book. The cold, the fog, the starvation, the isolation, the fear, the shame, the pain and the bewilderment are all palpable. It is impossible to read this part and not shiver.
Helen stays in Seattle to care for her ailing father, but her need to find John and undo her words builds. She has no idea where he is or what he is enduring, but she aims to find him and see if they can restore their marriage. She joins the USO and arranges to be sent to Alaska, planning to go further north until she finds John or someone who has seen him. Payton no doubt wanted to show how someone who is alone and dealing with regrets often changes or takes risks in ways he or she did not think possible. Yet the story of her transformation is not convincing and the persistence of her journey not believable. The series of coincidences which nearly lead her to John just don't seem probable.
However, most of what the book records about the fate of the Aleuts is told from Helen's perspective as she makes her journey. Again, her encounters are not always believable, but at least give the reader an idea of the suffering the Aleuts endured. What she learns of the war and of herself she learns largely from her random encounters with Aleuts whose relatives have died or been captured or who have been separated from family without knowing if anyone is still alive.
The ending could, perhaps, be called a happy one. Each damaged in major ways, the couple reunite in Seattle and realize their love for each other is strong and genuine. Yet love is not enough to change history or overcome death and the happy ending ceases abruptly.
For all these flaws and limitations, the book is still powerful and deserves a place on the shelf of favorites. After all, none of the great stories of war, love and redemption make much sense because the themes are beyond human reason. Once in a while a writer such as Payton will succeed in pointing toward these myths and evoking a visceral reaction in readers. Don't miss this book.