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The Wind Is Not a River Hardcover – January 7, 2014

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Editorial Reviews Review

Author One-on-One: Nancy Pearl and Brian Payton

Nancy PearlBrian Payton

Nancy Pearl is a librarian and lifelong reader. She regularly comments on books on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.

Nancy Pearl: How did you become interested in this pretty much unknown aspect of World War II?

Brian Payton: I first came across the story of the war in the Aleutians when I lived in Alaska in the early 1980s. In my late teens and early twenties, I found that there had been several histories written about the war in Alaska, but could find little fiction. I’ve known since then that the events of 1942-1943, in what was then the Territory of Alaska, could serve as an incredible backdrop for a novel.

The facts themselves are remarkable. On June 3, 1942, the Japanese Imperial Navy bombed Dutch Harbor in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. Four days later, a force of nearly 2,500 Japanese troops seized and held Attu and Kiska, two of the outermost islands. The people of Attu—U.S. citizens—were taken prisoner and sent to Japan. The remaining Aleut people were evacuated by the U.S. military and interned in southeast Alaska. For the next eleven months, U.S. forces sustained an aerial campaign against the Japanese-held positions. Then, in 1943, one of the toughest battles of the war took place to recapture Attu. In proportion to the number of men engaged, it ranked second only to Iwo Jima as the most costly American battle in the Pacific Theater. It was the only battle fought on North American soil.

NP: Why do you think these pretty horrific events in the Aleutian Islands aren’t more widely known?

BP: At the time, it was impossible to hide the basic facts of these events from the general public, but the powers that be worked to ensure they were downplayed or ignored. Journalists were ordered out of the Territory, military censorship was drum-tight, and most of the campaign was fought beyond view of the civilian press. What information was available was tightly controlled. There are numerous reasons for this, including the government’s desire to not raise the alarm among the civilian population of the west coast of North America. It was important for civilians to believe that the war was being fought overseas. The idea was that we should fight and settle it “over there” before it reached our shores. The war in Alaska threatened that narrative. From the U.S. perspective, the campaign itself was fraught with problems and was seen as something of an embarrassment. The U.S. military gambled on the fact that they could contain and ultimately defeat the enemy there. History proves them right.

Because there was relatively little press about it at the time, these events quickly faded from public consciousness after the war.

NP:You’ve written both fiction and nonfiction before. Did you ever consider writing this as nonfiction?

BP: I wanted to tell this story in the form of a novel. The historical, nonfiction account of the events had already been written. In my work, I wanted to get at something else. I wanted both the writing and reading experience to be felt deeply, personally. To help us make sense of what happened in the past, we often reach for fiction in order to help try and grasp the meaning (or face the meaninglessness) of certain events. The great war novels help us understand WWII, the Vietnam War, etc., in ways nonfiction rarely does.

Many of the servicemen who served in the territory came home to a country that had heard little or nothing about their fight and their sacrifice. Many of the men returning from the Aleutians were met with blank stares and sometimes disbelief when they told their stories to the people back home. When I began work on this book, I wanted to shine light into a hidden corner of history and to answer some questions. Why were the journalists expelled from the war in Alaska? What happened to the American and Japanese soldiers? What became of the civilians caught in between? I set out to write the definitive, dramatic history of this chapter of the war.

But a funny thing happened along the way to completing that book. The story began to take on a life of its own. The characters came alive, asserted their hopes, fears and dreams, and the novel bloomed into something far more beautiful—a personal story of physical and existential survival. A story about the limits of the human spirit and the enduring power of love. Review

An Amazon Best Book of the Month, January 2014: At the start of this ambitious and earnest novel, a World War II journalist named John Easley parachutes safely from his doomed plane and finds himself on the Japanese-occupied Aleutian island of Attu, "unaccountably, alive and whole." Adds our narrator: "And so it begins." Indeed it does. Like all great novels, The Wind Is Not a River (a vague title that doesn't serve its story well enough) is many things at once: a mystery, a war story, a love story, and, at its core, a tale of survival. Scenes alternate between Easley and his wife, Helen, who leaves their Seattle home to join an Alaska-bound USO troupe, hoping to somehow find him. While Helen's efforts are a necessary counter-balance to Easley's days of strife, the scenes on Attu are the most compelling, and heartbreaking. In fact, the island itself becomes a character, a desolate, ancient, grumpy mound of ice and rock, sand and grass. Easley joins forces with a fellow survivor, and, like Tom Hanks in Castaway, they craft a makeshift home in a cave, foraging for seaweed, mussels, the occasional fish or sea bird. Both men are soon wasting away, in mind and body. Payton pens some lovely, sober moments. Scanning the horizon for ships, Easley sees an empty sea and "only smug birds skirting the shore. More of nothing, nothing more." Though we learn Easley is mourning a younger brother, killed in the war in Europe, he is initially unknowable. Even his comrade wonders, "who the hell are you?" In his fight for survival, sustained by an unearthed photograph of a young Aleutian woman, Easley finds an answer to that question. --Neal Thompson

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco; First Edition edition (January 7, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0062279971
  • ISBN-13: 978-0062279972
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (277 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #83,814 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Brian Payton has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Boston Globe. He is the author of Shadow of the Bear: Travels in Vanishing Wilderness, which was chosen as a Barnes & Noble Book Club pick, a Pearl's Pick on NPR, and a National Outdoor Book Awards Book of the Year. The Ice Passage: A True Story of Ambition, Disaster, and Endurance in the Arctic Wilderness and his novel Hail Mary Corner were published to acclaim in Canada. He lives with his family in Vancouver. To learn more, visit his website: (author photo by Alison Rosa)

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

77 of 85 people found the following review helpful By prisrob TOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 10, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
"The Aleutian Island area has the highest average wind speed of any area in the U.S. Average wind speeds are 15.6 MPH for Cold Bay, with the highest averages from September through May. The summers are relatively quieter, but even then gale force winds usually occur. An old Aleut saying is: "The wind is not a river." This means that the winds will change direction and intensity as a low pressure storm passes by."

Addendum: a reader questioned the wind speeds, and I re-checked. 15.6 MPH is the average wind speed. I will add this.

"Wind gusts over 50 MPH occur 3 or more days per month for 7 months of the year. June is usually the quietest month and December, January and February have 5.0 days each of winds over 50 MPH. The Maximum wind gust during this period was 83 MPH, but every month had gusts of 60 MPH or over. "

This marvelous book based on World War II, takes place in the Alaskan Aleutians Islands. It is told from two perspectives, War Journalist, John Easley, on the island of Attu, and his wife, Helen, who was left behind in Seattle. It is the story of true love, and the search for each other.

John Easley, feels distanced after he learns of the death of his brother Warren, a member of the Canadian Air Force in WWII. He wants to report from the front lines, in Alaska, where the Japanese have taken over some of the islands. The government will not allow journalists in, and John takes on the personae of his brother, and his uniform. While on a mission, in April 1943, the plane he is in is shot down, just off the island of Attu. He and the only other survivor, is a young Texan, Karl Bitburg, hide in a cave while hiding from the Japanese. Their stories of survival are epic and riveting.
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96 of 108 people found the following review helpful By Thomas F. Dillingham VINE VOICE on January 3, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Brian Payton has worked as a journalist and has published several nonfiction works as well as one earlier novel. His experiences as a journalist and nonfiction writer, combined with his ambition to write novels, would account for both the strengths and the weaknesses of his new novel, The Wind is Not a River. The broad historical context of the story is the little-known Aleutian campaign of the Second World War. The Japanese had invaded and established bases on parts of the Aleutian Island chain, which was United States territory. The U.S. military command suspected this was an effort to create a launching area for an invasion of the American mainland. There was little knowledge of the characteristics of the sparsely populated islands, but the military moved quickly to evacuate ("for their own protection") the indigenous inhabitants of the territory, interning them on the mainland in much the same way Japanese/American citizens had already been interned. The military launched an effort to destroy the Japanese bases and eject their troops. This operation was problematic because of the lack of familiarity with the extremely hostile environment and terrain of the islands; it was also kept secret as much as possible (to protect the element of surprise in the counterinvasion), so that strict censorship was imposed on the press and on personal communications from the area.

The fictional component of Payton's novel focuses on a journalist, John Easley, who has made a career writing especially about the environment and wildlife, with contributions to the National Geographic, and his wife, Helen.
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47 of 52 people found the following review helpful By S. Haas VINE VOICE on November 20, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I wanted to read The Wind is Not a River because I was thought a story about 2 people enduring hardships separately to reach a shared end sounded like an intriguing adventure story.
A man, alone in in a hostile environment trying to endure and a woman who knows something is wrong and can't just wait and hope that it gets better.
It is an adventure but that's just the surface of the story.
This book is really about the price that we pay when we love.
Parents, children, friends, lovers. We all lose some control of our own fates when we give our hearts to someone. It makes us strong, it makes us weak, it makes us foolish,it makes us brave.
That's what this story is really about - love.
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30 of 34 people found the following review helpful By E.M. Bristol VINE VOICE on November 12, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
When journalist John Easley (hands down the most ironic name for a protagonist ever) discovers that his much admired (and envied) younger brother, Warren, has been killed in battle, he takes a job investigating a Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. The government has been censoring this issue, and John becomes determined to uncover the real truth. However, when his plane is shot down over one of the islands, he is only one of two survivors who finds himself under the threat of capture/death and must struggle to survive the elements until help arrives. Meanwhile, his wife, Helen, with whom he had a regrettable argument prior to leaving for his assignment, is understandably worried and frustrated over her husband's sudden disappearance. Rather than wait at home, she chooses a bold course of action: volunteering with a performance troupe that travels from base to base to entertain the troops, something that will give her access to information on her husband's possible whereabouts. Each will face challenges: John's, the more stark struggle to find food, shelter and not give up hope that he will survive; and Helen's, the challenge of being on her own, impersonating someone with singing/dancing ability and the frustration of running into repeated dead ends. Once her quest is complete, however, there will still be challenges for both to face, as they re-evaluate their relationship, deal with the trauma of the past, and decide they want from the future.

The novel's setting and atmosphere is one of its strong points; I could easily visualize John's bleak camp over the sea and almost feel the chill of the wind. Helen's story provides a lighter-hearted contrast to her husband's grim circumstances and offers some welcome comic relief.
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