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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.
I had a hard time putting this book down at night.The author does a wonderful job of bringing the characters to life and letting us like them and root for them. Read morePublished 18 hours ago by Carol
I was expecting a war time love story. I got one. I was not expecting a tale of survival in unimaginable conditions, and vivid combat scenes. Read morePublished 1 day ago by Laura P
this is a very special book full of rare history and 100% realism it will not disappoint you, try to put it downPublished 1 day ago by Cory V Michaud
The is an excellent read about a part of history of WWII that not enough people know anything about. Read morePublished 2 days ago by Vavia J. Rudd
This was an interesting story. I did think the long stay the reporter stayed hidden & what he went thru was a little to drawn out. Read morePublished 2 days ago by Betty Jacques
This is an excellent book about courage and survival during the war in the Alutian islands. It has many poignant moments, both sad and happy. I highly recommend this book.Published 2 days ago by Kindle Customer
I had a lot of expectations for this book, but was disappointed. The suspense in the story builds almost right from the start, with a journalist marooned in the Aleutian Islands... Read morePublished 2 days ago by Terence Wei
Very interesting book. This was in a place and time, I knew nothing about. The tenacity of both Easley and Helen was to be admired. Read morePublished 2 days ago by Cheryl
The Wind Is Not A River takes as its springboard the `Secret War' between America and Japan in Alaska, in 1942 and 1943. Read morePublished 13 days ago by Lady Fancifull