This assuming his identity. Young Karl makes clear

This is one of those novels about which there was a good deal of excited chatter in the local libraries so I approached it with a degree of caution not helped by the title which seemed a tad overblown (sorry!) but turned out to have a perfectly good explanation. A few chapters in and any concerns that it might have been overhyped were quashed.It opens in 1943. John Easley finds himself marooned on the Aleutian island of Attu after his plane has gone down. One of the crew, a young man barely out of his teens, has survived with him. Conditions on the island are atrocious – dangerously cold, little or no shelter or food besides a cave and what they can forage. Easley is a journalist who has finagled his way round the news blackout surrounding the Japanese-occupied islands, donning his brother’s Canadian Air Force uniform and assuming his identity. Young Karl makes clear his resentment but realises that a better chance of survival lies in unity of purpose. Meanwhile, Helen who parted with Easley on bad terms, is desperate to find the whereabouts of her husband, conceiving a plan to travel to the Aleutians to look for him despite many obstacles put in her way. Their stories are told in alternating narratives as Easley grapples with loneliness, starvation and a brutal environment while dodging the Japanese forces just a stone’s throw away, and Helen makes her way from Seattle to Alaska, posing as an entertainer performing for the troops, casting around for clues, never giving up.?I’m a huge fan of the dual narrative. Well managed it’s a clever device for instilling suspense but it’s all too easy for it to fall flat on its face. Brian Payton deftly avoids this, balancing Easley and Helen’s very different stories beautifully while slowly inching them together. The writing is restrained, a little clipped and largely unadorned which suits his subject well, yet there are phrases that shine out – plovers ‘dutifully march along like businessmen late for a meeting’, ‘the ache in his jaw bullies all memory’ when Easley tries to distract himself from his rotten molar. Both their plights are intensely moving: Easley finds previously unthinkable ways to survive, both physically and emotionally, while Helen steadfastly believes her husband is alive, despite all evidence to the contrary, remaining heroically determined to find him no matter what it takes. There is a coincidence at the end – which, of course, I’m not going to reveal – that feels like a step too far but given all that has gone before it’s easy to forgive. The Japanese occupation of the Aleutian Islands was one of the least-known aspects of World War II, thanks to a U.S. government censorship campaign designed to forestall civilian panic about enemy encroachment on American soil. Nevertheless, recapturing those few square miles of isolated islands was considered a strategic imperative, and the effort required a massive expenditure of time, resources and lives.Vancouver, B.C., author Brian Payton has chosen the remote island of Attu, and the time frame of spring 1943, as the context for his powerful new novel, “The Wind is Not a River”. The title, which trades on the Aleutians’ reputation as “birthplace of the winds,” poses a riddle that is not easily solved.There’s perhaps some irony in the names of the protagonists in this story — neither John nor Helen Easley finds the going easy. John is a journalist who has gotten around the government’s press blackout by ditching his press credentials and bluffing his way aboard a bombing run over the Japanese-occupied islands.But on the very first page, John is regaining consciousness on a snowy Attu beach after the plane he was riding in has been shot down. He and the only other survivor must fend for themselves in harsh conditions while evading detection by the Japanese forces stationed there. Their prospects are bleak.Meanwhile, 3,000 miles away in Seattle, Helen is worried. She had quarreled with her husband about his compulsion to head back up north to report on a story that the government wants kept quiet. Now she hasn’t heard from him in weeks. She contacts his editors, colleagues, friends — but no one has information.Helen resolves to quit her job and go search for him herself. And in a time of government restrictions, limited transportation and sparse cash, the only way she figures she can do this is by joining a USO musical review bound for Alaska to entertain the troops. This requires that she trump up her very limited experience as a performer — but Helen is determined to do whatever it takes to find her husband.This thoughtfully conceived novel is part war epic, part love story. It’s an odyssey turned inside out, in which the wife sets off on a quest far from home while her battle-scarred husband, day in and day out, tends the flickering fire in his cave.Combining these his-and-her stories of mettle, juxtaposing constancy with adaptive flux, Payton emerges with a metaphorical alloy of survival.?Yet traveling from camp to camp in the USO show, Helen can’t help but wonder, “How many millions of lives have been diverted by this war? Unlike the tally of ships, dollars or casualties, there is no math for personal losses … No restitution for what could have been.”The pages of this book practically turn themselves, the compelling narrative flow only hitching up a bit when John suffers hallucinations, which is logical to the story line, considering his compromised health, but makes for a bumpier read. By turns greathearted and grim, “The Wind Is Not a River” probes the reasons for, and the consequences of, the human practice of war. While it doesn’t provide the answers, this story may haunt you long after you’ve put the book down.??

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