In 1942, the Japanese military occupied two of the Aleutian Islands, Attu and Kiska, which were part of American territory. For more than a year, the American soldiers attempted to recapture the islands and defeat the enemy. An attempt to play down the crisis and large numbers of casualties, by forbidding journalists access to the battles zones, was instituted, in large part, successfully.
The book was very poignant. It was a story of love and devotion above and beyond the call of duty. The reader will surely appreciate the book on the basis of its romance and suspense, of the analysis of the flexibility of the human mind and the resilience of the body under extreme stress, of the description of the characters and their monumental effort to survive. The ramifications of war and the devastation caused by the battles will strike its mark for the reader as the characters suffer, and muddle through, the effects of this war. The author wanted to illustrate the emotional and physical side of the war and he did accomplish that goal. The sacrifice, the loss and the degradation of those the war touched, came through loud and clear and illustrated another lesser known event of WWII. The author of this book wanted to create a narrative around the historic events that took place, in the only place where warfare occurred on American soil.
As a novel, the book worked as a romantic thriller and mystery, as a story of survival, sacrifice and loyalty, but it fell short in the way of historic informer. The history seemed thin to me and may disappoint others. I, for one, did not know much about the Japanese invasion of American territory off the coast of Alaska, and I would have preferred to learn more about it. The attack on the Aleutian Islands was not covered by the schools I attended nor was it part of the curriculum when I was a teacher. As a result, I had the book would better inform me about the tragic elements of the war, other than that the soldiers were sent into battle without the proper equipment or supplies and that the battle was fierce with a massive amount of casualties and a huge death toll, because that is a fact common in most battles between enemies, and nothing new.
For me, I would have liked to learn how the Japanese managed to take over the islands. Was America simply unprepared for an attack? Why was the government so afraid to inform the public about it, and how did they get away with not revealing the truth? Who was responsible for ordering the attack and how did the enemy slip through American defenses? Did many journalists defy the rules and sneak behind the lines, when they were forbidden access and the news was blacked out, or was this simply a fantasy dreamed up by the author? Were there any wives who tried to find their husband the way John Easley’s wife Helen did, even though it was, essentially, a futile attempt? Because the battle in the Aleutians was not widely covered, many in the US still remain ignorant about it. Were the Aleuts really evacuated by their own government and were their homes burned down? Were many slaughtered by the Japanese and others captured and shipped off to prison camps in Japan, without anyone ever finding out about it? I would have liked the book to include more of these facts and details that it lacked so that I would have fewer unanswered questions. A prologue with basic facts would have been a great addition to the book.
The story, basically, is about a young man whose brother is lost in battle. When John Easley discovers his brother Warren is missing and presumed dead, he is determined to do his part to find out what happened to him. A Canadian journalist, he tries several times to sneak onto the battlefield, like a war correspondent, to observe what was happening, but he was turned back each time with a more and more severe warning. Finally, he tries again, dressing in his brother’s uniform; he takes on his identity and pretends to be a soldier. When the plane he is on goes down, he and another young man, Carl, a real soldier, parachute out of the dying plane and are the only survivors. Their survival will become the stuff of nightmares. Their story is gripping. The weather is merciless, the enemy is heartless, the danger is constant and any hope of a rescue is soon abandoned.
At one point, John discovers a buried package containing a woman’s note to her lover. In the note, the woman named Tatiana tells her sweetheart, “wind is not a river”, which is where the title gets its name, however, I am really not sure what the title means, in terms of the book (perhaps that the wind cannot carry them home or offer an escape, but a river can), but the idea of this woman somehow sustains John and he hallucinates her presence and has conversations with her when his loneliness, hunger and despair cause him to lose touch with reality. He communicates with her and listens to her advice. She maintains a semblance of sanity for him although he is not quite sane and she is certainly not quite real.
Meanwhile, John’s wife Helen, guilt ridden because of the ultimatum she gave him before he left, sets off to find him. Her plan seems ill conceived and truthfully, irrational. She abandons her father who recently suffered a stroke and becomes part of a USO entertainment group and requests to be sent to Alaska, where she believes John went missing. The author parallels Helen and John’s love story with the survival story of John and Carl and then John and Tatiana, John’s imaginary girlfriend and confidante. Both Helen and John experience loneliness, distress, hunger and cold, but for John, the suffering is far more extreme.
If nothing else, the book exposes the futility of war, the waste of human life and the foolish choices made in the interest of righteousness. The back stories of the characters were a little weak, and the whole story seemed a bit incongruous, as the events seemed unrealistic, although the war was real, the battles were fraught with danger and there was an immense loss of life in this little known episode of World War II. If you want to just take the book on face value, it is a good mystery and a moving love story, but it is not high on historic fiction, other than it was a battle that took place during WWII.