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To the White Sea (Delta World War II Library) Paperback – September 1, 1994

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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

His bomber hit by anti-aircraft fire, an American gunner must parachute into Tokyo days before the great firebomb raid on that city. Fortunately, this recorded version of Dickey's macho story of survival against the odds is abridged, making the hero more believable and the tale more mesmerizing. The book, unfortunately, contains too many instances of poetic flights of fancy and philosophical baggage for a blood-and-guts action story wherein the hero commits a large number of murders, both necessary and gratuitous. The main focus here is how to escape and how to become invisible in a nation where you are the outsider. Dickey's solution is highly imaginative and entertaining. This production, well narrated by Dick Hill, will appeal to those who love war and adventure stories. Recommended for large popular collections.
- James Dudley, Copiague, N.Y.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Kirkus Reviews

Dickey doesn't write many novels--three in 23 years--but he makes every one count. And when he's in peak form, as he is here, he makes every word count as well: In this unforgettable story of an American soldier escaping across WW II Japan--a story closer in spirit to Deliverance (1970) than to Anilam (1987)--the prose of this 70-year-old poet slices down to the bone of things like an immaculate knife. On a bombing mission over Tokyo, the B-29 carrying Dickey's hero/narrator--the gunner Muldrow--is shot down, forcing him to parachute into enemy territory. But Muldrow isn't like other men: Raised as a hunter in Alaska, he knows how to get things done. He alone survived the plane crash because he alone had the foresight to tape a parachute to the plane wall--and the same knack for survival gets him out of Tokyo by allowing him to take what he needs as Allied planes firebomb the city. He needs clothes: Amid the heat and smoke, he finds the right-sized man and blows him away. Muldrow decides to head for Japan's northern island of Hokkaido; there, in the snow and the cold, he will survive. He walks; he hops a train; he kills. He meets his match in a blind swordsman, and he almost dies when he encounters an American Zen monk who betrays him--just as this incident, alone in the novel, betrays Dickey's artifice through its too obvious contrast between the monk's grasping for reality and Muldrow's practiced hold on it. As Muldrow treks north, the mercilessness of that hold becomes ever more apparent and is mirrored in the stark beauty of the ever harsher landscape; by the lyrically brutal conclusion, Muldrow, like the animals he admires, has become one with the land: ``I was in it, and part of it. I matched it all.'' A ruthless adventure of body and soul by a writer of mature- -even awesome--powers. -- Copyright ©1993, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Series: Delta World War II Library
  • Paperback: 275 pages
  • Publisher: Delta; Reissue edition (September 1, 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385313098
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385313094
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #98,327 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Widely regarded as one of the major mid-century American poets, James Dickey is known for his sweeping historical vision and eccentric poetic style. Joyce Carol Oates described Dickey's unique perspective as a desire "to take on 'his' own personal history as an analogue to or a microscopic exploration of twentieth-century American history." One of Dickey's principal themes, usually expressed through direct confrontation or surreal juxtaposition of nature and civilization, was the need to intensify life by maintaining contact with the primitive impulses, sensations, and ways of seeing suppressed by modern society.

Born in 1923 in Buckhead, Georgia, Dickey spent a year at Clemson University before enlisting in World War II. As a member of the 418th Night Fighter Squadron, Dickey flew more than 100 combat missions in the Pacific Theater, and it was during this time that he began to experiment with poetry. After the war, he finished his degree at Vanderbilt University. Although he started writing poetry in 1947, Dickey did not become a full-time poet until thirteen years later.

After earning a master's degree in 1950, he taught and lectured for six years, but when some of his poems were construed to be obscene, he decided to forsake academic life for the advertising business. "I thought if my chosen profession, teaching, was going to fall out to be that sort of situation," he said in Conversations with Writers, "I'd rather go for the buck...I figured that the kind of thing that an advertising writer would be able to write, I could do with the little finger of the left hand, and they were getting paid good dough for it. I happened to have been right."

Writing ad copy for much of the 1950s, Dickey secured a place for himself in the world of advertising and business. However, after the publication of his first book, Into the Stone, and Other Poems (1960), Dickey left his career to devote himself to poetry.

"There could have been no more unpromising enterprise or means of earning a livelihood than that of being an American poet," he admitted in Conversations with Writers. "It's different now. They're still having a relatively rocky road, but it ain't like it was..." Dickey's emotional attachment to his craft surfaced early in his writing career. "I came to poetry with no particular qualifications," he recounted in Howard Nemerov's Poets on Poetry. "I had begun to suspect, however, that there is a poet--or a kind of poet--buried in every human being like Ariel in his tree, and that the people whom we are pleased to call poets are only those who have felt the need and contrived the means to release this spirit from its prison."

In Poets on Poetry, Dickey admitted that he considered style subordinate to the spirit of poetry, the "individually imaginative" vision of the poet. Dickey recalled that the subject matter of his early poems came from the principal incidents of his life, "those times when I felt most strongly and was most aware of the intense reality of the objects and people I moved among. But despite the many autobiographical allusions, Dickey's work often assimilates, even as it reports, the experiences of others. In poems like "Drinking from a Helmet" and "The Firebombing," Dickey's self-conscious speaker is often transfigured into a sort of visionary observer, fully aware of his own perspective and the fleeting nature of the event, however catastrophic.

Extreme conditions permeate Dickey's work. "To make a radical simplification," wrote Monroe K. Spears in Dionysus and the City: Modernism in Twentieth-Century Poetry, "the central impulse of Dickey's poetry may be said to be that of identifying with human or other creatures in moments of ultimate confrontation, of violence and truth. A good example is [the poem] 'Falling,' which imagines the thoughts and feelings of an airline stewardess, accidentally swept through an emergency door, as she falls thousands of feet to her death" in a field in Kansas.

Many of Dickey's poems also explore the perspective of non-human creatures such as horses, dogs, deer, bees, and hybrid animal forms. Such poems attempt to fuse human and nature into a transcendental vision of wholeness. As Benjamin DeMott wrote in the Saturday Review, "A first-rate Dickey poem breathes the energy of the world, and testifies to the poet's capacity for rising out of...habitual, half-lived life."

Dickey's acclaimed novel Deliverance (1970) continues and extends the preoccupations central to his verse. Exposing the primitive urges at work in even "civilized" men, the novel tells the story of four Atlanta suburbanites on a back-to-nature canoe trip that turns into a terrifying test of survival. Dickey, who made a number of canoe and bow-hunting trips in the wilds of northern Georgia, told Walter Clemons in the New York Times Book Review that much of the story was suggested by incidents that had happened to him or that he had heard about through friends. All those experiences, according to Dickey, shared the feeling of excitement and fear that "comes from being in an unprotected situation where the safeties of law and what we call civilization don't apply..."

Much more than a violent adventure tale, Deliverance is a novel of initiation. As a result of their experience, the two men who survive come to a realization of the natural savagery of man in nature, said C. Hines Edwards in Critique. "In three days they have retraced the course of human development and have found in the natural state not the romantic ideal of beauty in nature coupled with brotherhood among men but beauty in nature coupled with the necessity to kill men, coolly and in the course of things." In line with this view, Samuels and other critics noted that Deliverance alludes to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Still other critics made comparisons to Hemingway and even Homer. Dickey wrote the script for the blockbuster movie of the same name, and even made a cameo appearance.

In addition to Deliverance, Dickey also wrote criticism, including the National Book Award-nominated Sorties (1971), a collection of journals and essays, and published a retelling of several biblical stories, God's Images: The Bible, a New Vision (1977). He also wrote Jericho: The South Beheld (1974), an exploration of the American South. "Like Whitman or [Mark] Twain," said Michael Dirda in the Washington Post Book World, "Dickey seems in a characteristic American tradition, ever ready to light out for new territories."

Dickey's next novels Alnilam (1987) and To the White Sea (1993) were not as well-received as Deliverance, though Dickey alleged he spent thirty-six years working on the former. Largely viewed as a "poet's novel," Alnilam did not fare well critically. However, in his final novel, To the White Sea, Dickey returned to the themes of survival and primitivism. As with Alnilam, critics praised Dickey's poetic style, even as it clouded the plot. "Dickey takes language as far as it will go and sometimes overdoes it," remarked John Melmoth in the Times Literary Supplement, who added that "some of the writing has an eerie brilliance."

Dickey died of a lung ailment early in 1997. Critical appreciation of his work focused on both his interest in primitivism and the use he made of his Southern background. Reviewing two posthumous volumes, Crux: The Letters of James Dickey (1999) and The James Dickey Reader (1999), in the New York Times Book Review, J. D. McClatchy noted that "by the time Dickey died in 1997, at the age of 73, his public had thinned out...His writing, with its lust for excess, its fascination with guts and grit, blood and soul, had long since grown bloated and undisciplined."

Though praising Dickey's early work, McClatchy contended that the publishers of his letters had "done him a disservice" in presenting letters without context that seemed to present Dickey as a self-serving careerist and hypocrite. Though considered a major figure of American poetry, Dickey was also criticized for his pursuit of celebrity and out-sized public persona. Bronwen Dickey, the poet's daughter by a second marriage, offered a countering view of Dickey in Newsweek. She noted that his was "not the greatness of the writer but the greatness of the father and the teacher."

Despite some critical reappraisal, Dickey's reputation as a major American poet seems assured. In a 1981 Writer's Yearbook interview, Dickey elaborated on his devotion to verse: "Poetry is, I think, the highest medium that mankind has ever come up with. It's language itself, which is a miraculous medium which makes everything else that man has ever done possible." -- This biographical sketch is adapted from one originally published by The Poetry Foundation.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This novel operates on myriad levels, and there is enough here to make you think for years. Multiple readings will only raise more questions, and/or cause you to rethink the conclusions you've previously thought solid. Merely for the fact that this is a book that makes one think and ponder and consider, it is a great book.
The basic story is that of a WWII bomber crewman shot down over Tokyo immediately prior to the great firebomb raids of Spring 1945. He is utterly alone on a hostile foreign island, likely listed as missing, presumed dead, with the book's opening pages promising a superior adventure as our protagonist struggles to stay alive and eventually repatriate. But, as the story matures and we gradually learn more about Muldrow, we see that repatriation has been only a fleeting inspiration. Mudrow has been freed, and he pushes north toward a place that is much more imagined than real.
As he struggles north Muldrow changes from serviceman to fugitive, from survivor to predator, from endangered hero to questionable protagonist to a perplexing and difficult-to-like principal character. To my reading, Muldrow is an unpredictable, dangerous psychotic, with only the regimen and discipline of societal interaction and military service having kept him in check during brief periods of his life. When in his element, out in the wilderness relying only upon himself, he is a nation unto himself, free to make any choice which suits his needs and his whims. We see it in the flashbacks to Alaska, and we see it in his maniacal odyssey to Hokkaido and the White Sea, and to a mental and physical place which of course does not exist.
In the end where does Muldrow go? This is as debatable as the nature of his character, the origins of his actions and thoughts, and his motivations.
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I had the rare honor of a long telephone conversation with James Dickey 12 months before his untimely death. We talked about "To the White Sea" and the novel I was working on "Greif". James was busy writing the screen play for the novel, which I hope his daughter will finish. When I first read it I was sucked in, shocked, stomped and emotionaly drained. Here we have a novel written in the first person which is essentially some of Dickey's best poetry. At the same time Dickey places the reader squarely into the mind of a serial killer (Muldrow) who has the entire Japanese Home Army tracking him down. They are faced with "Muldrow's" ultimate camouflage! Himself! A wild human being hunting other human beings with absolutely no conscience or feeling for his victims. The reader will, at first, cheer on Muldrow! But as Dickey begins to work on your mind, you feel a chill up your back as he takes you on a wild ride that seems to have no end. I discribed my experiences in Alaska exploring the Brooks Range to Dickey, who merely chuckled. I had the impression this consummate Southern Gentleman had an unreal grasp of those desolate wind swept and COLD plains. COLD IS THE WORD THAT BEST DESCRIBES 'TO THE WHITE SEA'.
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I read this due to the fact that I heard that the Coen Brothers were making it into a movie -- although I've read that this is no longer the case. In any event, this was my first Dickey novel and I have to say that all in all, I was very satisfied with the effort. The prose is interesting, lush and vivid in some parts and caustic in others. Some of the other reviewers seemed to be appalled at the plot and the surgical sterility that Dickey used to describe the deaths inflicted by the main character, but I found those exact things to be quite within the realm of believability, especially when the whole idea of the book is to survive like an animal behind enemy lines.
I liked the book enough to want to go back and read more of Dickey's other works...
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By A Customer on January 11, 1999
Format: Paperback
An unforgettable, hypnotic meditation on survival and finding peace among chaos. Dickey paints a complicated, ambiguous lead character whose brutal and selfish actions are contrasted by his beautiful laments about nature, manhood and glaciers. Apparrently, there are several screen treatments of this novel in the works, including a dialouge-free adaption by the Coen brothers.
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A page-turner all the way. I had to force myself to put it down at times. It's a masterful piece of story-telling, for sure, but much more: a complex portrait of a serial killer which is also remarkable lyric poetry. It's this juxtaposition which is so disturbing: a cold-blooded killer with the mind of a poet. Dickey's ability to "paint with words" is incredible. I don't know what else I can add to what other reviewers have already said. I was disappointed to discover (as I should have expected) that this novel is probably going to be made into a movie. No, no no! I don't care who does it or how good it supposedly is; it can't achieve what the novel did, which is told in the first person. Why, oh why, can't Hollywood leave this one alone? In any case, read the book by all means. I haven't read anything that caught my attention like this one did in a long time.
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I'd added this book to my Wishlist years ago, based on a list of great war novels I saw in a magazine. Based on the book's appearance on that list, I was greatly surprised by the content of this book; it was less a war novel than it was a story of a man in a crisis.

As has already been said, it is a novel of an aviator shot down during a WWII bombing raid over Tokyo, and his story of survival. The novel has a single narrative and a single voice (the protagonist's), and no chapters. One story-line, one voice, and one long chapter has the potential for tedium, yet I found the novel to be gripping and excellent.

Dickey's character doesn't really tell you what is happening to him, but relies on an indirectness to tell the tale. You don't so much get the action, rather you get the effect. You don't read the words of this novel; you just sort of take in the pages.

As the story unfolds, the character's traits, flaws, and past transgressions seep out. It is a novel way to get to know a character. While this book moved slowly at time, and wasn't the war novel I thought it was, I really enjoyed it and would recommend it. I read Deliverance long ago, and am glad I finally read this novel.
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