The Wind Is Not a River by Brian Payton

The Wind Is Not a RiverBrian Payton, a resident of Vancouver, British Columbia, is no stranger to writing about nature under siege. His well-received narrative nonfiction book Shadow of the Bear: Travels in Vanishing Wilderness chronicled his journeys throughout the world studying eight different bear species and their often-threatened environments. His The Ice Passage: A True Story of Ambition, Disaster, and Endurance in the Arctic Wilderness was longlisted for the National Award for Canadian Nonfiction in 2010. With his second novel, The Wind Is Not a River, Payton seamlessly blends fact and fiction to tell the story of a lesser-known subject — the Japanese invasion of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands during World War — that’s equally as meditative and just as informed as his nonfiction.

A bit of historical background: On June 3, 1942, the Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor in the North Pacific. Days later, a select group of Japanese combat troops took control of Attu and Kiska, two islands off the coast of the Alaskan mainland. Attu’s native population was taken hostage and shipped to Japan for forced labor while the Aleuts on the remaining islands in the 1,100-mile-long chain were evacuated by the U.S. military and sent to internment camps in southeastern Alaska. The Aleuts’ homes were burned and most of their worldly possessions destroyed. Thousands of Americans and Japanese died. In the end, it took nearly a year of sustained bombing campaigns for the U.S. to expel the Japanese from the islands.

During World War II, hundreds of foreign correspondents were stationed in battle zones across the world, filing gripping news reports for the folks back home. When the Japanese landed on American soil, many American journalists flocked to Alaska to cover the story. But not long after their arrival, they were ousted by the U.S. military to prevent any news of just how close the Japanese had gotten from reaching America’s living rooms and inciting waves of panic.

Some intrepid journalists refused to stay away, however, and went undercover instead. For, as Payton so poignantly writes, “If someone isn’t there to observe and record, capture it on the page, it will be as if it never happened.” A few reporters even managed to infiltrate enemy lines, unbeknownst to the U.S. government. It is under these tightly controlled yet precarious circumstances that Payton’s protagonist, 38-year-old ex-National Geographic correspondent John Easley, finds himself heading toward the Aleutians disguised as his newly deceased brother, a lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Air Force. When the plane carrying Easley “falls out of the sky” just off the shore of Attu, killing all but him and another soldier, Karl, on board, the stage for Payton’s novel — shadowing that of history — is set.

The narrative chronicling Easley’s many-month-long ordeal on the remote island of Attu isn’t just another adrenalin-fueled play-by-play of a condemned man’s desperate attempts to survive while holed up in a makeshift cave under the nose of an unsuspecting enemy. Though Payton’s cinematic descriptions of what Easley endures are often amped up and do bring to mind some of the more institutional survival tales popularized by movie scripts. Instead, The Wind Is Not a River tells another more introspective side of the story: that of the loved ones left at home.

In alternating chapters, the unraveling of John’s three-year marriage to 25-year-old Helen is played out. After his brother’s death, “John’s silence was the sinkhole that appeared at the corner of their lives . . . He let his sorrow consume them.” But like any woman pinched by love, Helen naïvely thinks nothing of dropping everything — including caring for an ailing father — to join the U.S.O. on its way to Alaska in hopes of finding her husband. While the passages featuring Helen’s journey aren’t as visceral as those involving John, they’re nonetheless worth examining. Her transformation from nervous-ninny housewife to saucy U.S.O. starlet on a mission to restore her faith in love is, while perhaps not wholly realistic on its condensed six-week schedule, the idealized version of what a discarded lover might do if given the opportunity.

In writing The Wind Is Not a River, Payton traveled to the Aleutian Islands to get a feel for the setting. He also lived in Alaska as a boy. In his elegant portrayal of the land and poetic descriptions of the fauna and foliage, his deep affection for the area and its history shows. When asked in an interview what his intentions for the book were, he writes, “My goal is to transport readers to a stark, beautiful, and unforgiving landscape, then challenge them to ask themselves: How far would you go in search of the truth, or to honor a lost loved one?” In this, he succeeds.

Originally ran in the Oregonian (January 21, 2014)

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