Wartime story covers novel territory
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