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Superb fiction about 'Forgotten War' in Aleutians proves deeply moving

  • Author: Nancy Lord
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published January 18, 2015

The Wind is Not a River

By Brian Payton; Ecco/HarperCollins; 2014; $15.99 paperback.

There's an old Aleut saying (thanks, Google!): The wind is not a river. This is said to refer to weather -- a recognition that the direction and intensity of Aleutian winds will change as storms pass through. In Brian Payton's new novel, the protagonist finds a love letter hidden on Attu Island by an Aleut woman captured by the Japanese at the beginning of World War II's Aleutian Campaign. The letter concludes with these lines: "I will wait for you. Think of your promise to me and remember, the wind is not a river." For the desperate man reading the note, the words are a riddle, the moment pivotal.

This carefully researched and beautifully written novel features John Easley, a journalist who poses as a military officer on a bombing run over Attu Island and ends up being shot down. He and one airman, the only survivors, spend weeks trying to stay alive in the hostile climate while hiding from the Japanese invaders. (The Japanese had already captured the local Aleut population and taken them as prisoners to Hokkaido.) Meanwhile, Easley's wife, back in Seattle, has no idea what has become of him and sets off on her own quest to find out.

The Aleutian Campaign, long known as "The Forgotten War," is the subject of numerous excellent histories. (Among them is the now-classic "The Thousand-Mile War," written by Brian Garfield in 1969.) A very basic outline: In June 1942, the Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor and invaded the farther-west islands of Attu and Kiska. They captured as prisoners 42 Attuan villagers and then occupied the two islands for nearly a year before American troops took them back. The Battle of Attu, the only WWII land battle fought on American territory, lasted more than two weeks and cost the lives of 549 American soldiers and 2,850 Japanese.

Emotional responses

Payton, a Canadian writer of both fiction and nonfiction, chose to portray aspects of the war as fiction because, as he said in an Amazon interview, he wanted "the experience to be felt deeply, personally." Fiction can get inside experiences of life in a way that nonfiction cannot, and can evoke not just understanding but emotional responses from readers.

OK, I admit being brought to tears while reading this book.

"The Wind is Not a River" is, at once, a war story, a love story, a survival story and a meditation on what it is to be human in desperate times. At its heart, it's the story of a man and a woman living on hope in the midst of war.

Payton's choice to make Easley a committed journalist who had to sneak into the battle zone is based on the historical truth that Army censors prevented journalists from reporting on the Aleutian War, out of concern that news of war on American soil would unduly alarm the public. From that beginning, Payton does an outstanding job of sticking with historical facts and sequences, right up through the Battle of Attu. He does an equally admirable job of depicting life on Attu, with its miserable weather, its flora and fauna and the ways a person might find food and warmth while awaiting rescue. He reportedly spent a decade researching and writing the book; his research included at least one trip to the Aleutians. He knows about williwaws and "the Aleutian stare."

Here's Easley in the beginning, after his plane has been downed and he's regained consciousness on the island: "The fog is better than an ally; it is a close, personal friend. It covers his mistakes and spreads its protective wings over him, allowing him to escape detection. But it also separates him from the crew, if indeed anyone else has survived. Then a red flash of memory: an airman's lapel suddenly blooms like a boutonniere before the man's head slumps forward and lolls."

Surprising characters

The parallel story of wife Helen, told in alternating chapters, is equally realistic about life at home during the war and women's participation in the USO (United Service Organizations), the nonprofit that provided entertainment for the troops, including those in the Aleutians.

A love story set in wartime could easily be sentimentally trite or predictable, but Payton's complex characters defy stereotypes and continue to surprise us.

The author wisely chose neither to exploit the story of the Aleuts (or Unangan people -- Unangax -- as we now refer to them) nor to ignore it. Instead, he deftly incorporates the dark history of both the capture of the Attuans and the evacuation and subsequent poor treatment of Unangax in relocation "camps" in southeast Alaska. In Helen's quest to find her husband, and later, she seeks and finds Unangax who share with her just enough to help a reader understand the trauma and resilience of those Americans who lost their homes and many of their kin as a result of World War II.

Curiously, "The Wind is Not a River" is also the title of a completely different book perhaps familiar to Alaskans. (Book titles cannot be copyrighted.) Arnold Griese, a Fairbanks writer and professor of children's literature, who died two years ago, in 1978 published a primary-grade book set on Attu at the time of the Japanese invasion. In his fiction, two children escape capture to hide in the hills and plot to rescue their fellow villagers. They end up helping an injured Japanese soldier, guided by the wisdom of a grandmother.

Then there's "When the Wind Was a River: Aleut Evacuation in World War II," published by historian Dean Kohlhoff in 1995.

As direct memories of the horrors of WWII depart with that generation, it's useful to have all these texts -- fiction and non -- to recall some of Alaska's and Alaskans' part in that war and remind us of the strength of the human spirit.

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days" and "Early Warming."

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