Customer Reviews: The Sand Pebbles (Bluejacket Books)
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on June 18, 2001
This is one of my favor novels, one that I would want on the proverbial desert island. I re-read it about once every ten years, and it's always fresh. This is a novel that can be enjoyed on many levels. It is an historical action-adventure story, with lots of pushing, shoving and fighting. It's a historical romance, in the tradition of Sir Walter Scott: a hero in an exotic foreign land, a long time past, fighting for what's right. It's a novel about Navy life, with lots of Navy procedures and protocol.
But to me it's more than that. It's a philosophic novel that asks the question, `Who's life is this?' I believe that in all our lives, there is a tension between what we would like to do, what we would like to be, and what the rest of the world tells us what we ought to do, indeed, what we will do. Our family pushes and pulls us in one direction, our employer in another direction, our community in another direction. Where does my own autonomy fit with the countless demands everybody else is making on me?
This is the essence of `The Sand Pebbles,' with the Navy acting a surrogate for society. The protagonist of this book, Jake Holeman is a misfit in life, forced into the Navy to avoid reform school, he drifts through the Navy without meaning or purpose until he learns to work on the ship's engines. It is only while he works on the engines that he finds fulfillment. Jake is not an anti-hero, he is smart and likable but he chafes at the many impositions society and the Navy place in his way. Everything in life is something he has to endure, except working on the engines.
Like an unappreciated artist who must paint or write, Jake Holeman must work on machinery. Machinery doesn't care who a man is, where he was born, or how good his manners are. Unlike the rest of the world, machinery can't be flattered, cajoled or ordered. It only cares how much you know. If you know how it works, it will perform wonders; if you don't, if you try to con it, it could kill you. At first it appears Jake has found the perfect ship, a small gunboat patrolling some obscure river in an obscure part of China. Jake is the senior engineer, and as long as he keeps the ship running, life will be perfect. But no man can live is he chooses, there are always others who will tell you what you will do.
So what happens to when you decide to live life on their own terms, to answer only to your own conscience? The world strikes back, and the results are tragic. Yet the tension remains, if we are to live life instead of just exist in it, we have to, by our own nature, push and shove back. Everybody dies, but few actually live. It would be a shame if they book were forgotten.
This book was made into a great movie with Steve McQueen playing the lead character, but the books offers so much more detail. If you enjoyed the movie, you will be delighted with the book. Buy the book and re-read it every ten years to see how your life is going.
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VINE VOICEon February 8, 2001
It is one of the great ironies of American life that the U. S. military, though it is necessarily one of our least democratic institutions, offers many young people a unique opportunity to realize the American dream. This is so because in addition to providing them with training and instilling discipline, it has, for the most part, functioned as a meritocracy. Which is not to suggest that it has been devoid of politics or racism, but that in general it has been a place where a talented young man could rise through the ranks, provided that he could tolerate the restrictive lifestyle and function within the command structure. This tension though--between opportunity on the one hand and the requirement of submission on the other--makes the military a natural setting for a novel, where an author can exploit these conflicting themes.
Most would probably argue that From Here to Eternity is the greatest American novel of military life (as distinguished from novels about actual combat, like Red Badge of Courage and The Killer Angels), indeed it made the Modern Library Top 100 and it is excellent, but The Sand Pebbles is even better and Jake Holman is one of the quintessential heroes in all of American literature. Jake, like his fellow anti-heroes RP McMurphy and Cool Hand Luke, or for that matter Huckleberry Finn, is smart, likable and a natural leader, but bristles at the many petty indignities of life. His fierce sense of injustice got him stuck in the Navy in the first place, in order to avoid a jail sentence for punching a spoiled rich kid, and he has transferred from ship to ship, seeking the one with the least responsibilities and the loosest discipline. He's deeply ambivalent about the Navy but does love one thing about it, the chance to work with ship's engines. He values this opportunity for what is, significantly, a political/spiritual reason :
Machinery only cared about what a man knew and what he could do with his hands, whether he was a coolie or an admiral, and that was the secret, very good thing about machinery.
And Jake's desire to be judged in this impartial and unprejudiced way carries over into his relations with others, so that he seeks to judge them on these terms also :
The coolie was an engineer; well then, he was not a coolie, he was another engineer like Jake Holman.
His devotion to this simple democratic code, and his loyalty to people who measure up to its standards, especially the coolie Po-han who he takes under his wing, makes Jake very appealing and, when added to a thrilling adventure story set in the China of the 1920's, a society perched on the edge of Revolution, produces one of my all-time favorite novels (and movies).
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"The Sand Pebbles" is an interesting and entertaining novel set in China circa 1925. China is governed by feuding warlords, and its foreign trade is dominated by foreign "treaty powers" including the USA, Japan, and the leading European nations, all of which maintain strong naval and marine forces in China to maintain their positions and protect foreign persons and property.
The novel takes place on an obsolete, barely functioning American river gunboat, the "San Pablo," known to her crew as the "Sand Pebble." The protagonist, Jake Holman, is an engineer-crewman aboard the Sand Pebble. Jake has a passion for mastering the ship's engines, but initially is frustrated by the fact that aboard the Sand Pebble each American sailor has a Chinese coolie understudy who in fact does almost all of the work aboard ship. The Sand Pebble crewmen have delegated almost all of the ship's routine to a shadow crew of Chinese coolies, and do very little actual work. Jake's frustration with the coolie-understudy system and his attempt to fit in with the Sand Pebble crew are part of the main theme of the novel.
The real story of "The Sand Pebbles" is, however, the emergence of China as a modern nation. The Kuomantang Chinese Nationalist movement is becoming ascendant in China as the novel unfolds, and it seeks to sweep away foreign influence, and the warlord system that has kept China weak and divided. The officers and crew of the "Sand Pebble," in common with the other foreign military forces, must deal with this new movement, which seeks to change Old China, which had seemed eternally unchangeable. The slow understanding by the foreigners, including the Sand Pebble, that this change is real and something that must be dealt with, is the real story in the novel.
Author McKenna does a masterful job of presenting China as it was in the 1920s, together with life in the American gunboat navy of those times. This is a novel rich with detail and atmosphere. Both the American and Chinese protagonists are presented with dignity and insight, making this a very interesting read. While the storyline of crewman Holman is interesting enough, this is only an excuse to tell the real story--the transformation of China.
This novel will reward the patient reader. I personally found it engrossing and entertaining. Recommended.
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on May 5, 2011
Author Richard McKenna did not live too many years after the stunning success of his first novel, "The Sand Pebbles". This book, based on real events in 1920s China, inspired the superb, award-winning 1966 Robert Wise-directed film of the same title, starring Steve McQueen. The novel provides much character background and place details not in the movie, for obvious reasons. So, if you love to see the movie and then read the book (or vice versa), this is a classic for your summer reading list. Long out of print, you can still find modest priced reading copies. Most public libraries no longer have the book which will make it a collectible in coming years.
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on May 11, 2004
Old China Hand had a meaning during the early 20th Century. Jake Holman, primary American character of this book is an old China hand. He's a sailor on an American gunboat, a part of the multi-national forces cruising the interior waters of a China in the throes of unrest, warlordism, rebellion, turbulence and chaos created by the downfall of the Manchu Dynasty and the Boxer Rebellion.
Jake's navy is one that resembles the post-WWII US Army in most of Asia prior to Vietnam in some ways. Asians do the unpleasant and difficult chores as houseboys and other types of assistants, to the point of imposing a dependence on them and degradation of competence of the Americans. Those who love Chinese history, those who love historical fiction, those who served in the Far East and remember, almost anyone can appreciate this classic work of (greater than) historical fiction.
This book is one you'll read more than once, probably see the movie and love it, and read the book again without feeling the least letdown. It's a gripping tale of an almost forgotten time in history. I recommend it thoroughly, whatever your reason for reading it.
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on August 15, 2014
It was a bit slow in the beginning but it picked up the pace quickly. I found it enlightening from the historical content. One thing that I found interesting was that after reading The Rape of Nanking that the Chinese did the same thing just years before the Japanese. I did have to do some searching on the internet to clarify some historical background.
I have to admit that I felt more sympathy for Jake than I would have felt if I were not envisioning Steve McQueen's face.
One thing that I felt McKenna did well was to write the rougher parts of life as a sailor but still impart tenderness in Jake, Frenchy, Maily, and Shirley.
Keep in mind the perspective is more from the westerners' points of view but there is empathy with the Chinese trying to break the yoke of imperialism and regain independence.
While McKenna did not attempt to resolve or pretend to have the solution to the problems inherent in China or with the results of foreign control, he does try to show attitudes of the period and give voice to all sides.
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on March 31, 2004
Richard McKenna's The Sand Pebbles is a great novel, it never gets boring and the story really catches the readers attention. The story has elements of humor, action, sadness and drama. It's a great read for anyone who loves reading, or a great work of fiction. McKenna masterfully takes us on a journey about many different people, with very different views on life and philosophy. Whether it be Holman who refuses to conform or Lt. Collins' firm belief in military duty, or the views of the missionaries who resent gunboats in China. The story touches on the issues that people little know about China in the mid- 20's, and the lives of river rat sailors who were placed in the middle of the Chinese revolution.
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on August 1, 2002
The Sand Pebbles is the story of a small ship, on a small river deep in the heart of China. Unknown by most of the rest of the world but home to the crew of the ship. McKenna, a former Asiatic Fleet Sailor, describes life in the river gunboats of the 1920s with an accuracy and authenticity that is amazing. I could almost feel the heat of the engines and the aromas from the galley.
The book is a study of men in the Navy. They are far from the public eye, doing a job deemed essential by someone in Washington. They are essentially feared by the Chinese and despised by the American missionaries they come into contact with. It must have been a brutal emotional duty to carry out. Yet many men loved it. They spent their careers on the rivers and retired there when their time was up in the Navy.
Jake Holman, the central figure, is not better or worse than most other Sailors of that time. His motivation for joining the Navy were "...Army, Navy or reform school..." and so into the Navy he went. He is a competent machinest mate but has few real people skills. He is a loner on the outskirts of the Navy world. He has bounced from ship to ship and has now reached the end of the line. But even Holman makes friends in the ship as he tries to adapt to his surroundings.
It is an interesting look at the gunboat navy. The crew did military duties and drills but the day to day ship's husbandry were done by Chinese men. Is it any wonder the crew loved China duty once they got there.
One might say that the conclusion of the book is confusing and leaves you feeling troubled. Well it fits with the mission of the gunboat sailors and I think is perfect. Antiimperialists may condem the book and the subject but it was a real part of the American Navy and deserves to be remembered and respected.
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on April 16, 2001
I'm very glad to see this one back in print. From their name, I'm guessing the new publisher is one of those that caters to students of military and naval history. Certainly the other reviewers seem to focus on McKenna's depiction of the lives of men serving on a U.S. Navy river gunboat in the 1920s.
And indeed this aspect of The Sand Pebbles is very well done. The whole book is worth reading just for one finely-crafted scene where the other sailors bet a foul-mouthed messmate he can't tell a story without cursing. He wins the bet, but on his own terms.
But there's more to this book then the lives a few seamen. It's about their interaction with the strange, wonderful Chinese civilization around them. And with China itself, which is, in a sense, the most important character in the book.
McKenna motivates this action by centering the book around an intelligent but half-educated hero, a rebellious man who joined the Navy to stay out of jail, and who transferred to the river patrol to escape from the hierarchy and rituals of ocean-going ships. Lacking his shipmates' contempt for the Chinese, he becomes fascinated with their lives and culture. This fascinatation become the source of many complicated interactions between him, his shipmates, and the Chinese, leading to friendship, love, conflict, and tragedy.
Another fascinating character is the boat's skipper, an aging Lieutenant Junior Grade. On one level, he is off-balance martinet, overly fond of military ritual, striving to achieve a strange personal state of grace -- with disasterous results. But he's also a keen observer of the events and people around him, and his inner conversations about them make for compelling reading.
Most people know this story from the Steve McQueen movie, which reduced all the complexity of McKenna's story to Vietnam-era historical guilt tripping. A pity, because this book contains much insight about the interaction between China and the west, an interaction to often reduced to simple political cliches.
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on October 20, 2014
Having seen the 1966 movie with Steve McQueen, Candice Bergen and Richard Crenna, It took me far too long to get the novel. After almost 50 years, I regret not having read it much earlier. It is quite simply one of the finest novels I've ever read. I rank it on a par with the greats--of Hemingway, Faulkner, Wolfe, Fitzgerald, Styron et. al. It's hard to believe that this is McKenna's FIRST novel and that he didn't start his writing career until relatively late in life--his mid-40s. It is quite regrettable that this was his ONLY novel before his untimely death at age 51 in 1964. Not only did he live the life of the Yangtze Patrol gunboat sailors he so meticulously and compassionately describes, but he has brought to life the chaos of Revolutionary China on the eve of the Kuomintang revolution that wracked this fascinating land for 15 years before the Japanese invasion and culminated in the Nationalist/Maoist split that sent Chiang kai Shek to rule a rump republic in Taiwan, with Mao and he glaring threateningly across the straits. It is sometimes forgotten that for a while Chiang was the arch-enemy of the American, British and Europeans who enjoyed "treaty privileges" thanks to the cannons of their roving river gunboats. Of course he became an ally of convenience when the Red Scare dominated American attitudes towards the Far East. The roles and attitudes of the missionaries, at times in conflict with the sailors and marines who perforce defended them, are portrayed with finesse and nuance.

Besides the wonderful word pictures of China and its people during these turbulent years, McKenna has crafted a finely honed naval adventure tale, without the facile bravado of so many military authors. More importantly, the characters he draws, especially that of the tragically fated Jake Holman and his might-have-been life companion Shirley Eckert are skilfully depicted, not to mention the various minor characters, especially Frenchy Burgoyne and the conflicted Chinese-American Mailly. This novel is not only a wonderful sociological study of the American gunboat Navy of the 1920s and the conflicts wracking revolutionary China but works on every level--character evolution, plot development and deeper meaning. It is a novel one can read and re-read, evoking new meaning at each.
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