January 2014

On the Alaskan war front

By Brian Payton
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Losing a loved one to the chaos of war would be devastating enough, but lingering doubt as to whether a husband were alive or dead could slowly consume a wife. Especially if her last words to him were an ultimatum: Choose his reporting work, or her. In The Wind Is Not a River, Helen and John Easley find themselves caught in the upheaval of World War II, separated emotionally and physically by the lengths to which he will go for a story.

John poses as a lieutenant to sneak into the Japanese-occupied Aleutian Islands, hoping to report about this little-known theatre of the war—which the Americans would prefer the press keep quiet about. His plane goes down on the island of Attu as the novel opens, and instantly the reader is thrust into his fight for survival. The weather is unrelenting and unstable, the only food available is what he and the crash’s only other survivor, young airman Karl, can catch and kill, and discovery by Japanese soldiers is a daily threat.

Helen, at home with her guilt and her ill father, eventually can take the waiting no longer. She, too, lies her way north to Alaska, joining a troupe of USO Swingettes, in a passionate effort to find John.

Canadian writer Brian Payton deftly juxtaposes Helen’s and John’s separate struggles to stay alive and sane against forces that would render them otherwise. Set against a meticulously described Alaskan setting, each harrowing or quietly painful minute is portrayed in realistic detail. John’s ordeal proves miraculous and heartbreaking, told in passages that are sometimes difficult to read due to their intensity of rawness or sorrow. The book arcs poetically across the distance between Helen and John, drawing out the separation that they (and the reader) can hardly bear.

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