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Sunday, Aug. 31, 2008

Fiery romance raging in the tumult of war

A forbidden love brought about, and cursed by, World War II


By STEPHEN MANSFIELD
BESIDE A BURNING SEA by John Shors. New American Library, 2008, 424 pp., $14 (paper)

Although most history now is of the revisionist kind, the public still dwells in the past, comfortable with its standard accounting. Little attention is paid to the correction of received fictions. History, as they say, gets to be written by the victors, even when it clashes with truth.

Many of us believe, for example, that Cuba's fate was sealed during the Spanish-American War when Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders seized Santiago's San Juan Hill in a daring cavalry charge. In reality the rout never happened, cavalry were never deployed during the campaign, and the battle was virtually over by the time Roosevelt arrived on the scene.

Winston Churchill's famous wartime radio speeches, we now know, were made by a professional voice actor.

During the Pacific War, cornered Japanese soldiers emerging from caves with their hands held up were routinely gunned down, and gold was extracted from the teeth of the dead.

Little is written about the brutality of America's campaign in the Pacific, and you won't find any reference to it in John Shors' new novel, but there is one interesting departure from the standard recounting of World War II: The hero of this story is a Japanese soldier. A romance of the classic type, with exemplary characters pitted against dastardly ones, it is also a contemporary work.

Shors' focus on the emotions of two women, for example, would not have been possible in, say, Norman Mailer's 1949 war novel "The Naked and the Dead."

The story begins with the sinking of a Red Cross ship. Murder, sunken ships, human sacrifice, a deserted island, villains and heroes inhabit this adventure story. The Pacific location, and the focus on shifting human destinies, inevitably invite comparisons with James A. Mitchener, an author who liked to stage his stories in the big world.

Reading these pages may give the impression that Shors is a survivor of the conflict himself, a salty veteran of the Pacific. He turns out to have been born after the war, an American who happens to have an abiding interest in the war.

Though teetering at times on the edge of melodrama, emotional structures are powerfully built. The story is rescued from a softening of narrative by strong doses of brutality. Against the vast theater of war, each character experiences a private drama. The virtues of Akira, Annie and her sister are contrasted with those of the traitor Roger, an American agent of the Japanese, who despises both sides. He is at war with the entire world.

In Shors' novel, restive, conscience- stricken men and women, haunted by the lives they have led, are offered a narrow window of opportunity to redeem themselves.

Shors doesn't hesitate to use well-tested stock-in-trade situational devices favored by storytellers from Daniel Defoe to John Grisham. After being shipwrecked and finding themselves stranded on an island, the author's ensemble of characters become resourceful in ways they never expected: Sand is used to scrub the body instead of soap, banana leaves become plates, fire is used to attract fish, a women's hair doused in hydrogen peroxide serves as a surgical thread to stitch a wound.

The description of nature, particularly the tropical flora, the jungle floors and canopies of the Pacific islands, are well-drawn. The wonders of the island momentarily tranquilize fear. There is even time for an American nurse and a Japanese soldier to fall in love, to form a seemingly impossible attachment.

This story of redemption, love and friendship is placed against a hideously distorted, morally arid world, one where the prophets, saints and deities of the great religions have been silenced, but where human decency, even heroism, survives in small, fertile patches.



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