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Thursday, July 21, 2011


James Michener’s first book, Tales of the South Pacific, written in 1947 and based loosely on his own WWII experiences, earned a Pulitzer Prize and initiated a prolific writing career that left us a treasure trove of historical fiction.

Tales of the South Pacific is a series of loosely linked short stories, often featuring and developing the same characters as they evolve and react to their naval experiences on remote South Pacific islands. 

Is this a war story?  Yes.
Is this a story of human relationships? Yes.
Is this a story examining prejudices in society—between races, countries, and classes? Yes.
Is this a story that reveals how courage is shown and how heroes are made? Yes.
Is this a story that explores a world that existed more than half a century ago? Yes.
Is this more than any of these? Yes.

That’s why Tales of the South Pacific is such good reading.  It’s true that Rogers and Hammerstein’s Broadway show, South Pacific, has its origins in Michener’s tales, but if that show is what you’re looking for, you will be sorely disappointed.  This book is much bigger and broader in scope.  Much as I love South Pacific, this is one more example of how much finer is the book.

Picture yourself in the military in WWII, a time when most people did not travel far from home and when there was no television to make the inaccessible accessible.  You are stationed on Norfolk Island and meeting the descendants of the HMS Bounty mutineers.  That mutiny actually occurred in 1789.  Marlon Brando’s movie will not be made until 1962.

Picture being stationed for years on a tiny coral sliver where sailors are so bored they become suicidal.  Picture refusing love and happiness because of the race of your love’s children.  Picture giving up everything you know for love.  Picture storming a beach to conquer an island.  Picture startling and ancient religious ceremonies.  Picture a military cemetery on a small, remote island in the middle of the South Pacific.  Picture more.

Michener is able to make characters and settings become visual images for his reader who sees, in his mind’s eye, the glorious beauty of this infamous theater of war.  Get to know the characters, the way they look, and more importantly, the way they think and develop throughout the book.

Michener presents a cross-section of humanity—from the rich to the poor, from the sophisticated to the simple, from the wise to the ignorant, and from the good to the bad.

Can you tell that I am a long-lived Michener fan?

Here’s another plus.  This Michener novel is not one of his long ones; it runs about 300 pages which is just perfect as a travel companion.  Tales of the South Pacific is a book well worth reading for enjoyment but which will deepen your understanding as well.  What can be better?

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