on December 11, 2000
To use an old cliche, this book gives the reader a sense of "being there" during the Second World War in the Pacific theater.
This is not a chronicle of the war itself. It is not a military history, although it is full of military anecdotes. It's a series of loosely connected stories of the prolonged island-hopping campaign across the Pacific, related through the personal experiences of a variety of characters. Michener's emphasis is on the individuality, humor, valor, and idiosyncrasies of the men and women who populated the bases and combat units of the Pacific campaign.
As anyone who has seen the musical "South Pacific" (based on a part of this book) knows, it includes the island natives and expatriates who happened to live in the places where the war was taking place. In reading these stories, you may come to understand why many of the armed forces veterans of the Pacific war were drawn to go back to the islands in later years.
If I were limited to one sentence, I'd say that this book is about everyday Americans doing unusual jobs in exotic places. I like it well enough that I've read it multiple times and consider it a favorite. It's a lot easier reading than many of Michener's later epics, and in my opinion it's as good as anything he's ever written and better than most.
The omission of this work from the academic canon is another comment on the discriminatory but hardly discriminating state of literary studies today. Michener is far more than a captivating storyteller, collector of colorful characters, painter of vivid natural imagery, and documentor of the orchestrations of world warfare. Each of the "tales" comprising his carefully-constructed epic narrative is at once thematically and stylistically related to the other smaller narratives and at the same time artistically whole in itself.
If the reader has expectations of a single-minded patriotic paean to the fighting men of the South Pacific, a close reading of the early chapter, "Mutiny," should dispel any such illusions. Here, as throughout the book, Michener uses nature and the ocean as a test, a touchstone, and a foil--exposing the folly not just of warring nations and military campaigns but of arrogant, imperialist civilizations and many of their prideful citizens. Tony Fry, his anti-authoritarian, compassionate "hero," commits a subversive act that links him with the mutineers on board the Bounty and casts the American command in the role of Bligh and Hitler! In the next story, "Cave," Fry emerges as a war-time philosopher whose meditations on courage move him to acts of selfless, Christ-like charity. In "Boar's Tooth" Fry is able to overcome his resistance to a primitive religious ritual involving pain and sacrifice as he contrasts it with the empty and self-serving practices of modern religion.
The American fighting men and women who come to the South Pacific bring no small amount of baggage from a flawed social order back home, and Michener's heroes are not simply the individuals who perform fearlessly in combat: they're just as likely to be the narrow-minded Americans who are transformed by their experiences in the South Pacific into better human beings. "Our Heroine," the story of Nellie Forbush, is a shocking expose of racism, delivering a reeling blow comparable to explosive moments in Flannery O'Connor or Faulkner. When Nellie learns that her fiance's former lover is dead and rejoices not because a rival has been removed but because a black person has been eliminated, she would seem to be beyond the redemption experienced even by O'Connor's most degenerate souls. But in an earlier story about "the Remittance Man" Michener's narrator has constructed a definition of heroism based on courage and an exclusive vision of the sacred status of all human life, allowing us to see how Nellie's eventual change of heart qualifies her for inclusion among the company of true heroes.
The famous Bali Hai chapter ("Fo' Dolla"), far from an escapist love story, is at once romantic tragedy in the tradition of "Madame Butterfly" and tragicomedy in its portrayal of accessory characters who recall the nurse and friar in "Romeo & Juliet." And once again the narrative's definition of the "heroic" allows us to see the tragedy play out not merely as a tale of star-crossed lovers but as a drama of choices and their painful consequences. In each case the act precedes and produces illumination: Joe Cable's venture into Bali Hai and the Dionysian produces self-discovery because ultimately it becomes a "shared discourse" with his dark-skinned, native lover, who turns out to be a "real person" with a history of her own.
Michener is as likely to locate the heroic away from the war as on island battlefields or the Pacific main, because his real subject is human nature and the courage to live in the face of obstacles both natural and human. To their credit, Rodgers and Hammerstein detected (and partially, if unevenly, captured) the strength in Michener's novel: Each of us has a Bali Hai, and our failures to reach it can be traced as much to failures of courage and vision as to the ironclad circumstances of existence.
on June 25, 1999
I first read this book when I was young, not long after I saw the movie "South Pacific". I didn't particularly like it because the characters were the same ones as in the movie but they didn't "fit" in the same way. After many, manyy years, I read it just the other night and loved it! It had been long enough since I saw the film that the characters could stand on their own. Mitchener wrote this soon after the war when his memories were still fresh and he displays a great deal of affection for the "typical" sailor caught thousands of miles from home. For many, they would never get home. To this American tale, he adds a lot of tropical spice: Bloody Mary, the Frenchman's Daughter, Emil De Becque himself. Mitchener shows the American fighting man as hero, coward, nice guy, louse, sacrificial, selfish, and mostly a combination of all of these traits. Although I have read many of Mitchener's books, this is still his best: young, filled with Mitchener's memories from his recently-concluded naval service during World War II. Deservedly one of the classics that came from World War II.
I read this book for the first time in 2006. It is a wonderful book, very valuable in learning about daily life for American soldiers during World War II. You also learn what the South Pacific Islands were like then. I have been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand so I know what is like to have left a life behind in the United States and to live in another country. When you are signed up for a certain period of time, you always have to keep in mind that you are going back to the life you had before, but you are living a totally different kind of life now. People back home will never quite understand what you have experienced and many will not care. Most will only want to know a shallow version of that life. A person keeps most stories to themselves. I feel that Michener understood the life he wrote about in the South Pacific and was able to fictionalize many true stories. The book has insight, compassion and wit for it's protaganists. Just a wonderful book and I'm glad I read it.
on April 11, 2007
I admit I had very little idea what this book was about when I bought it, but it seemed like something I should read while on vacation in the South Pacific last fall. It wasn't quite the island paradise novel that I thought it would be - it really is a book about WWII, in which the islands of the South Pacific are characters, but despite not being what I thought I enjoyed it thoroughly and didn't put the book down until I was done. My reading experience was definitely enhanced by the view of the ocean that I had from my overwater hut in Bora Bora where I was when I read the book, but even if you aren't on vacation in some exotic locale, South Pacific is a classically entertaining novel well worth the read.
on May 22, 2003
Because this is Michener's first published book, because it is different from his subsequent works, and because many people are more familiar with the Rogers and Hammerstein musical than with the book, I will reveal my biases up front. I do not care for epic historicals, and so have never enjoyed Michener's writing before reading Tales of the South Pacific. The musical was Rogers and Hammerstein's second or third collaborative effort, and to me was a poor follow up to Oklahoma.
That said, reading this book gave me the feeling I have when my father and I rummage through his collection of black and white war photos, postcards, and 78 RPM disks from his days as a Chief Petty Officer in the US Navy in and around the South Pacific. Each artifact stimulates a story, many of which are linked to another, and another. Sometimes the stories are about the war theater in Europe or Africa or home in the states. Most often, they are simply about friendships, loss and the discoveries of an eighteen year old doing a man's work in the first few months away from his parents' farm.
Like my father's stories, Michener's Tales of the South Pacific could be set anywhere, but they are about being somewhere other than where one comes from. They are about finding belonging in new surroundings and accepting that great people are rarely 100 percent great. Michener's heroes are the very human people who were decent to one another, believed in the value of their nation's cause and the people around them, demonstrated leadership, but didn't take the trappings of the navy or rank very seriously. His nemeses were not just the Japanese, but American biggots, mean SOBs and phonies. Like Hersey's, Bell for Adano, the stories were practically current events when they were published, and Michener's perspective on sex and the races were shocking material for many Americans who had been fed years of propaganda about their boys (and girls) overseas and who only after 1945 could truly emerge from the depression of 1930s to enter a new, modern and more aggressively democratic age. Tales of the South Pacific foreshadowed the new world to come while honoring the great people who helped to make it possible. At the end of the book, the reader is glad to be among the survivors, standing in the graveyard among heroes, but worried that the supply of greatness might someday be used up.
on June 1, 2005
Mitchener's World War 2 collection of short stories remains as vibrant and compelling in terms of human interest today--as when it was written. Alternating between the logistics of war with personal suffering and joy, these stories present the reader with a composite of life and death in tropical paradise. Characters popularized in the Broadway musical, South Pacific, appear in several stories in this fascinating patchwork of passion and pathos. As all emotions prove more poignant in a backdrop of war, the inner conflicts of personal desire and frustration touched responsive chords in both post-war and contemporary readers.
Mitchener's themes include frequent references to racial prejudice which was rampant in still-insular America. As well as the devastating effect of prolonged heat and limited space in Westerners. Throughout the book runs the thread of the Allies' gradual reclamation of the Japanese-held islands, culminating in the strike on Kuralei, with its the shocking toll of life. As the ubiquitous narrator pays a respectful visit to the new cemetery, this collection draws to a gentle close, yet Mitchener's unforgettable characters live on in our literary memory. If nothing else this book reveals the tremendous debt we owe to the brave men and women of the armed services. A sensitive
yet historically-accurate masterpiece, for readers of all ages.
on November 7, 2003
This 1947 novel won a Pulitzer Prize and established Michener's reputation as a writer. This book preserves the manners and culture of America circa 1940, both in what he wrote and what he didn't write. Michener shows his artistry in his descriptions of the foliage, flowers, seas, lights, and the people. Michener served in the Navy during WW II, and wrote many other books over the next fifty years. In 1960 he ran for office as a JFK Democrat, in 1968 he was a delegate to the Democratic Convention pledged to RFK.
These stories describe life on the islands of the South Pacific. "Coral Sea" tells of the Japanese invasion fleet that threatened New Zealand. The civilian population would flee to the hills, leaving the old men and boys to guard the beaches with picks and axes; they had no other weapons. "Mutiny" tells of Norfolk Island, the former prison that was inhabited by the descendants of the Mutineers on the Bounty. They had to cut down old pine trees to make an airport. "An Officer and a Gentleman" tells of the Ensign who had too much time on his hands. "The Cave" tells how they received information on Japanese activities until their coastwatcher was eliminated. "The Milk Run" tells of a rescue of a downed pilot. "Alligator" is about the planning and background for the attack on Kuralei in the coming months. "Dry Rot" tells of the skin diseases and other disorders from living on an island in the tropics.
"Fo' Dolla'" subtly explains political economy, the effect of plentiful money on an isolated region, and the interaction of human emotions and power; all wrapped up in a colorful story. The Sea Bees made war souvenirs and grass skirts. "Passion" tells of a problem in censoring personal letters. "A Boar's Tooth" notes the religious ways of some island peoples. Can a pig be sacred? Is pain and suffering at the center of all religions? Was Michener an Agnostic? "Wine for the Mess at Segi" explains the travails of getting refreshments for Christmas. When the celebration ends, they learn they will hit the next beachhead. "The Airstrip at Konora" tells about capturing an enemy-held island and creating a 6,000-foot airstrip from coral.
"Those Who Fraternize" tells about the French colonial planter's society, and their relations with the Navy. "The Strike" describes the Kuralei operations, the Supply Depot, and the masses of goods needed for the invasion. Naval aviators loved baseball caps (did this create the fashion?) The author tells how important it could be to know an admiral! The big attack on the Depot came from a hurricane. An ammunition carrier anchored in the channel exploded; no one ever found out why. "Frisco" tells of the beginning of the assault on Kuralei. This is continued in "The Landing on Kuralei" which describes the landing on the beaches. This is the climax of the book. "A Cemetery at Hoga Point" wraps up the story. Who replaces the good men who died, asks Michener.
We now know that the Japanese code was broken before Pearl Harbor, and our top military leaders knew of their plans. The emphasis was on first winning the war in Europe. The island hopping strategy was based on winning the war with minimal means. Japan lost the war with the Battle of Midway; they gambled on a quick victory, and lost.
on May 9, 2016
I had read this wonderful novel way back aways. Just returned form a trip to French Polynesia and looked for my copy. Must have loaned it out along the way. So I ordered this Readers Digest first edition hardcover and I was not disappointed. Very nice illustrations and the novel was almost as I remembered it. I was on Bora Bora and I thought Michner wrote about it. Not so. A minor irritant. A fast read but Mr Michner can write!
on November 12, 2014
It is my understanding, James Michener served in the South Pacific and then authored this work. In format, it is a series of related short stories that reminds me, in format, of "Winesburg Ohio" by Sherwood Anderson, and "Dubliners" by James Joyce. Like other fictional works authored by former American Servicemen about World War II, this work is often dark and complicated. Of course, so is war. Issues such as racism and rape are mentioned and discussed. The work served as a foundation of characters for the musical "South Pacific", but it is NOT the same story. The writing is entertaining and the work is an easy read. As far as I am concerned it is the kind of work that an individual can read and complete while on vacation while at the beach, etc...
I have discovered that there are some printings that are abridged. I purchased one and then purchased an unabridged printing and am glad I did so.