The Unknown War

The Wind Is Not A River, by Brian Payton


Did you know that during World War II, the Japanese actually invaded the American mainland? Neither did I until I followed up on the history Payton’s story was built around. Actually “mainland” may be a bit misleading; the Japanese invaded the two westernmost islands, Attu and Kiska, in the Aleutian chain. This story was withheld from the American public so as not to worry them unduly about the state of the war in the Pacific theater.

The story: John Easley, a Canadian journalist, cons his way onto a U.S. bomber in order to follow a story, using his brother Warren’s name and Canadian military rank. The plane is shot down, and only two on the plane survive: Easley and a young boy named Karl Bitburg the only survivors. They hole up in a cave on Attu, live on mussels and shore birds, keep warm by burning driftwood and coal they steal from the Japanese. Soon Karl is gone, leaving John to brave the frigid elements. Meanwhile, Easley’s wife, Helen, cons her way into the Aleutians in search of John, and the story alternates segments on John’s survival and Helen’s fated search for him.

This isn’t The Bridges of Madison County, and it isn’t Jack London’s To Build a Fire; it’s an inventive and nearly true story of noncombatants caught in the tangles of war. As such, Payton has dreamed up an inventive tale that keeps you wishing and hoping.
Payton has chosen to write his book in third person, present tense, a choice that can work well in short fiction, but in a novel it leaves this writer too much aware of the narrator, thus creating distance between reader and writer. There are ways to make such a structural choice work: leaving long narrative passages in that person and tense, but when closer to the characters and in dialogue, it would have worked better to switch to past tense. But still it’s a difficult choice. The book seems to have suffered from editing, too; there are a sufficient number of typographic and grammatical errors which my distract a reader.

But the book remains worthy of a read. I only wish Payton’s editorial choices had been ones to leave the novel more transparent to the reader. Then I would have declared the book a keeper.

My rating 16 of 20 stars.


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