Tales of the South Pacific
By James A. Michener
Read Oct 2020
Although this reader had never actually seen a stage or film version of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific”, three songs jumped into her brain immediately when this book was selected as a book for this reader’s book discussion group: “Some Enchanted Evening”, “I’m Going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair”, and “Bali-ha”. This reader is happy to report this book is quite engaging and serious and not at all what this reader was expecting from the familiar songs—a light romantic comedy.
When first released (the book in 1947 and musical in 1950), memories of World War II remained fresh in readers and viewers minds. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the musical won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. The musical was adapted for the screen twice: for the big screen in 1958 (the film was a blockbuster) and for TV in 2001. What accounts for this appeal in the late 40’s and 50’s and what accounts for the familiarity for even this generation?
James Michener was 40 when he enlisted in the US Navy. He was sent to the South Pacific. He earned the rank of lieutenant commander and had various assignments. He began compiling his observations about his experiences during that time. Michener begins his book “I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific. The way it actually was. The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we called islands. …. I wish I could tell you about the sweating jungle, the full moon rising behind the volcanoes, and the waiting. The waiting. The timeless, repetitive waiting. But whenever I start to talk about the South Pacific, people intervene.”
Michener’s book (his first of over 40) is a collection of related short stories told, after the introductory piece, in approximate chronological order. Each chapter is a complete story in itself and characters from one story carry into other stories. While the stories can be read individually, knowledge of previous stories provides more depth of understanding of aspects of the story at hand. The author makes clear who is narrating in each story. Most of the stories are narrated by an officer who completes a range of assignments supporting various commanding officers. In each case, the reader feels as though the narrator is speaking directly to him/her.
The stories are about the people who serve on the islands on which equipment and supplies were landed to support various campaigns and where airplanes and PT boats landed and were repaired. They are about the US Seabees who build the beaches on which the Marines and Sailors land to take control of the island and the airstrips that are used by US Navy airplanes of all sizes that fulfill various purposes: bombers, dogfighters, scouting, etc. They are about the officers who have a variety of roles including supply officers, doctors, nurses pilots, communications officers, and recreation officers (this one focused on enabling “the waiting” to be bearable). They are about the men who sweat in the hot humid climate and try to stay sane while waiting for the call to action. They are about the coast watchers who provide the Navy vital information regarding the movement of their Japanese enemies. They are about the nurses who are officers but who generally have backgrounds more like the enlisted men, with whom they are forbidden to socialize, than with the male officers. They are about the officers that engage their men to build an airstrip in the middle of a jungle in 15 days and they are about the officers that disengage their men through arbitrariness and disinterest in their needs. They are about the French plantation owners and their native and Tonkinese (North Vietnamese) workers that live on the islands. They are about the entrepreneurial Tonkinese who gladly sell the sailors and marines what they need across a wide range of goods and services. There several love stories, two which are a large focus of the musical. (The three unforgettable songs that are in this reader’s brain are related to these love stories.) The stories confront prejudices borne by the Americans regarding the various people living on the islands. (The musical confronted this issue directly as well.) The stories are stitched together by the recurring characters and how their experiences impact them. The stories lead from the pronouncement of a group of admirals to take a particular island through the development of Plan Alligator to the strike on the targeted island and the aftermath of that battle.
Although not written as historical fiction, it serves as such to those reading it in 2020. An indicator of good historical fiction, according to this reader, is that the reader is motivated to learn more about the subject. Michener’s book had that effect on this reader. Michener’s book provides the human face to that part of the war and gives it life that “regular” history books and TV programs using film from the time don’t provide. This reader has a new appreciation both for the magnitude of the undertaking of the war in the South Pacific and the lives of the peoples involved. And those songs will remain firmly embedded in her brain.