War­time story cov­ers novel ter­ri­tory

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Gail Perry

ALARGELY un­known his­tor­i­cal episode in the Aleu­tian Is­lands be­tween main­land Alaska and Rus­sia is the set­ting for this en­gross­ing, sat­is­fy­ing Cana­dian novel about sur­viv­ing soli­tude, war and love. Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, from June 1942 to May 1943, Ja­pan oc­cu­pied the is­lands of Attu and Kiska in the Amer­i­can Ter­ri­tory of Alaska. The peo­ple of sparsely pop­u­lated Attu were the only Amer­i­cans held pris­oner on Amer­i­can soil (af­ter three months, they were in­terned in Ja­pan un­til 1945). The U.S. re­gained the is­land in the Bat­tle of Attu in May 1943 (Ja­pan would sub­se­quently with­draw from Kiska). It was the only Sec­ond World War land bat­tle fought in in­cor­po­rated U.S. ter­ri­tory. The Wind Is Not a River is au­thor Brian Payton’s sopho­more novel ( Hail Mary Cor­ner ap­peared in 2001). The Van­cou­ver­based, Amer­i­can-born jour­nal­ist has also au­thored two non-fic­tion vol­umes on farflung places: Shadow of the Bear, Trav­els in Van­ish­ing Wilder­ness (2006); and The Ice Pas­sage (2009), about a res­cue mis­sion for the Franklin Ex­pe­di­tion in the Arc­tic Ar­chi­pel­ago. In this new novel, pro­tag­o­nist John Easley is a Cana­dian-born na­ture jour­nal­ist turned war cor­re­spon­dent liv­ing in Seat­tle with his Amer­i­can wife, He­len. He’s fas­ci­nated by the Aleu­tians af­ter be­ing there on as­sign­ment for the Na­tional Ge­o­graphic mag­a­zine and be­ing ex­pelled with other jour­nal­ists by the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment once the Ja­panese at­tack. When his brother, a Royal Cana­dian Air Force lieu­tenant, is killed over Eng­land, John is in­tent on con­tribut­ing to the war ef­fort by re­port­ing on what was re­ally hap­pen­ing so close to home: “If the Ja­panese were se­cur­ing a base for at­tacks on the main­land, civil­ians in Alaska, Bri­tish Columbia and Wash­ing­ton State had a right to know and pre­pare,” the nar­ra­tor asks, “what kind of writer shrinks from such a duty?” On the eve of his clan­des­tine de­par­ture to Attu (he will im­per­son­ate an of­fi­cer, tres­pass U.S. mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions and defy the terms of his pre­vi­ous ex­pul­sion from the Alaska Ter­ri­tory), He­len says: “If you leave now, don’t bother com­ing back. Be­cause I won’t be here if you do.” Th­ese will be her last words to him be­fore he hitches a ride on an Amer­i­can mil­i­tary air­craft that dis­ap­pears over the oc­cu­pied is­land. The novel’s 26 chap­ters al­ter­nate be­tween John and He­len’s des­per­ate ex­pe­ri­ences in the fol­low­ing months. John’s story is about sur­vival in a beach­side cave, in chill­ing mist (cover from Ja­panese foot pa­trols but also from Amer­i­can res­cue in the sky). There are plenty of bomb­ing raids and anti-air­craft fire and only lim­ited food and fuel. There’s John’s re­la­tion­ship with the only other crash sur­vivor, a pi­lot from ru­ral Texas; the dire things he must do to sur­vive; and the life-sus­tain­ing cache he finds left buried by a young Aleut woman for her ab­sent lover, com­plete with her photo and note: “I will wait for you. Think of your prom­ise to me and re­mem­ber, the wind is not a river.” He­len proves as re­source­ful and tena­cious as John. Re­ject­ing the no­tion that he could just dis­ap­pear, she sets out to dis­cover him or his fate in the Aleu­tians. She re-in­vents her­self, con­jur­ing a pro­fes­sional past, re­viv­ing the singing and danc­ing tal­ents of her youth and join­ing the USO Shows to en­ter­tain troops in the war zone. Her choice? The Alaska The­atre. Payton’s prose is spare but richly sen­sory. He ex­pertly ex­plores events and peo­ple not com­mon to fic­tion. His por­trayal of the Aleuts not from Attu who are in­vol­un­tar­ily re­moved by their Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment from their windswept sea­side vil­lages to dark, forested “du­ra­tion camps” on the main­land, is sen­si­tive and sad. Ul­ti­mately, this is a story of hope. The wind may be vari­able, but the river en­dures. Winnipeg writer Gail Perry has trav­elled

ex­ten­sively in Alaska and Rus­sia.

The Wind Is Not a


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