Allow for the fact that this is a Greatest Generation guy

I read Simon Winchester’s Pacific a few years back and found it both dour and sour. Not a keeper. So when I stumbled across a paperback copy of this book at the HPL Book and Plant Sale, I thought why not give it a try? One thing I had to keep strictly in mind was that Winchester’s book was published in 2015 and Michener’s in 1951. I hadn’t even been born when Michener and his wife spent a year traveling the South Pacific and he wrote this book about it, so my guard was very much up. Goody, an old white guy’s view of Polynesia. Can we spell racism? misogyny? colonialism?

I was mostly surprised. So long as you allow for the fact that this is a Greatest Generation guy, heir to all the learned attitudes of his day, this feels like a pretty straightforward look at what he saw. As he explains in the first chapter, “The Mighty Ocean,” he alternates nonfiction with fiction, or a factual look at, say, “The Atoll,” any atoll, and follows it up with a short story like “Mr. Morgan,” about the lifelong head to head of a planter and a priest on the atoll of Matareva.

Michener served in the Pacific during World War II and he has an elegiac description of the beauty of the Solomon Islands in “Guadalcanal,” which serves as a vivid counterpoint to his memories of the war there.

To me–and to many like me–Guadalcanal has a significance that is hard to explain. For years we had been told, “America is soft. W.P.A. and C.C.C. have ruined the young men. This generation has no vital spark.” We believed these rumors, in part, and what was more important, our enemies believed them. Across the world critics looked at us and reported: “Sports loving, luxury minded, whimpering in depression, unregimented.” The fatal word was passed: “America is through. She’s a pushover.”
At Guadalcanal my generation threw back the answer.

There’s a history lesson in a paragraph for any of us right there.

What follows is one of the best of the short stories, “The Story” (yes, you read that right) where Michener inhabits the voice of Anywriter being pestered by a copra planter who has just the best story ever and he wants the narrator to write it. After which it turns out that the copra planter’s own story is a much more enthralling and heartbreaking story by far, and the narrator does not learn that until he is about to climb aboard the plane home.

Tahiti, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, New Guinea, all are represented here, and the author ends with a last chapter titled “What I Learned” where his conclusions still resonate today. The roots of China in the South Pacific were planted well before Michener met his first Chinese entrepreneur on this journey, and long before China ever started building islands out of sandbanks and putting military airfields on them..

Wherever I went I saw the face of Asia, and it was unforgettable.

Michener paints with a pretty broad brush and he definitely sees through the eyes of a white Westerner, but he does see and he does report what he saw in plain facts and quotes and he does his damnedest to interpret what he saw in fiction. He does a pretty good job of it, too. A worthwhile read.

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  1. You had me at Guadalcanal. Never knew much about that, except for learning in history class that it was a tough battle in WW2. Then, I married a man whose father, as a teenaged Marine, was one of the many stranded on Guadalcanal. He survived, with after effects of malaria, malnutrition and the memories of an eye opening, traumatic experience in a part of the world that he, from a sparsely settled and isolated part of the Midwest, would have never experienced. Learning about what he and his fellows endured led me to understand more about courage, fortitude, determination and, yes, luck.Those Americans had a lot of grit, and many still do.

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