“The Wind is not a River,” a World War II novel by Brian Payton, is centered on a journalist and his wife. John Easley, previously a writer for national geographic, discovers the war has moved onto American soil in the Alaskan Aleutian Islands, while he is there studying the wildlife and land. Soon after, the United States government evicts all reporters and native Alaskans out of the territory, and moves in some 500,000 US soldiers to fight the Japanese that are slowly moving across the islands. The US government doesn’t want the American population finding out that the war has moved onto US soil, and censors all news, letters and postcards that leave the territory.
A year later Easley decides that it is his duty, as one of the few people that knows what is going on in Alaska, to go back and write about the war. He leaves his wife, Helen, and travels back to Alaska under the disguise of a Canadian Soldier. Soon after, the plane John is traveling on crashes into the ocean, and he and an American soldier, Karl, are stranded together on a remote island, presumed dead. John and Karl attempt to survive on their Island by killing birds with stones and stealing coal at night from a nearby Japanese base.
Meanwhile, Helen, alone and confused, does not know what has happened to John. He has not gotten in touch with her, and because of a fight they had before his leaving, she doesn’t know where he has gone. While she quickly figures out that Alaska was his final destination, she does not know where he is now, or how to find him. She soon decides to go in search of him and joins a group of female entertainers that travel around the different army bases, entertaining the troops with dancing and music.
The majority of the book consists of chapters flipping back and forth between the survival of John and Helen’s search for him. Certain aspects of this book were fascinating; I previously had no knowledge of World War II being fought up in Alaska, and that made for an intriguing read.
However, most of this book I found to be tedious and repetitive. The half of the book describing John’s attempts at survival produced the same problems and situations over and over again. He runs out of food frequently, his feet are wet, and the weather is bad. He begins to hallucinate, and wants to give up on life but does not have the courage to kill himself. The other half of the book is Helen trying to decide if she should go after him, and then finally going to look for him. Helen, on the surface is a likable character, but underneath is a rather simple minded person, consistently dependent on the help of others and suck in the sexism of the 1940’s, making her point of view frustrating to read.
Even further, neither of the two main characters are fully developed. I felt no real empathy for John’s situation and the hardships he faced, because the reader knows almost nothing about him. The few things we find out give the reader some background and even help us to understand him more, but these episodes are too few and far between and come too late in the story. In fact, I was more empathetic to Karl who we learn quite a bit about, but he dies off halfway through the story, leaving the readers with an unhappy alternative.
One of the smaller points I wanted clarified as I was reading the book was the title. It finally does come up towards the end of the book, however it does not entirely make sense. I understand it is supposed to mean that suffering is like the wind, it comes and goes unlike a river that is constantly flowing. However, the book does not give us that same impression. The two protagonists suffer the entirety of the book, and even the end is not satisfying in that respect. The reprieve from suffering we grasp briefly when they are reunited comes to an end too quickly to be satisfying to a reader that has been waiting for that moment for 250 plus pages.
“The Wind is not a River” is by no means a boring book. However, I think it is intended for a specific type of audience that I do not belong to. Those who really enjoyed “Brian’s Winter” would certainly enjoy this book, as well as any romantic minded World War II buff. The surviving aspect could have been thrilling, however Payton focused more on the psychological effects it had on Easley than on anything else. While, I do not think this is a story I will be picking up again later in a fond remembrance, I do not regret reading it, and would definitely still suggest it to my historical fiction inclined friends.