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Tue June 28, 2005
The Ambassador's Son
A mix of politics and adventure on the high seas. Recommended "summer reading."
By Don Noble
Homer Hickam of Huntsville, Alabama, was best known for his memoirs of growing up in the coal-mining country of West Virginia.
His first volume, Rocket Boys, made into the very fine movie October Sky, was followed by Sky of Stone and The Coalwood Way.
Having mined his childhood for all it would yield, so to speak, Hickam took on other subjects.
After a nonfiction study of the early days of anti-submarine warfare in the Atlantic in 1942, Hickam turned to fiction.
In The Keeper's Son (2002), he created Josh Thurlow and a whole collection of North Carolina Outer Banks characters. These colorful, even eccentric, people, led by Thurlow, a Lt. Commander in the U.S. Coast Guard, fought the Germans who, in a U-boat, landed on Killikeet Island.
Now Hickam has moved Thurlow and his crew to the Solomon Islands, in the summer of 1943. Thurlow, somewhat mysteriously, has special status and reports directly to Admiral Halsey. It is learned that Marine Lt. and combat hero David Armistead may have deserted and gone over to the Japanese.
Incidentally, Armistead's father had been U.S. Ambassador to France before the war. Thurlow's mission is to find Armistead and kill him.
As it happens, there is another young officer available to help in the search. Josh Thurlow recruits Lt. JG John F. Kennedy, who had recently lost his boat, PT 109, when it was rammed by a Japanese destroyer. JFK's father, of course, had been the ambassador to the Court of St. James, that is Great Britain.
That makes two ambassadors' sons.
So off these brave young fellows go into the Northern Solomons. What adventures will await them there? Well, there will be, for starters, the ferocious Japanese soldiers, who fight to the death and refuse to be taken prisoner.
There are also headhunters and a fairly large contingent of natives and whites, who practice cannibalism.
Let me say that, although there is considerable cruelty, violence, bloodshed, torture, and mayhem, almost all of it is off-stage.
Thurlow keeps coming upon half-eaten remains of Marines or the headless corpses of the losers of different battles. The violence and even the vulgarity in this novel is kept to a minimum, although when the Marines sing "Bless 'em all, Bless 'em all, Bless 'em all, the long and the short and the tall," no one is fooled.
There are also in this novel, of course, beautiful, sexual native women, Penelope and Victoria, and an English planter woman, Felicity Markham, so there is considerable romance in this South Sea Island adventure, as there should be.
I am often asked to recommend a book for light reading, summer reading, beach reading. Well, here it is.
Homer Hickam is having a really good time.
Josh meets and talks with a character named Jim Michener who will later write South Pacific.
Kennedy gets into a poker game with a cunning Navy supply officer named Nick--Richard M. Nixon.
Byron White ("Whizzer" to his friends, and future supreme court justice) makes an appearance.
At one point there is a little discussion of how to pronounce Hickam Field in Hawaii. It's Hickam, not Hickman.
This is a little private joke by Homer Hickam, who has a terrible time getting his name spelled and pronounced correctly.
Homer Hickam is a man with a jolly sense of humor.
One of the females in this book has the nickname Natty Bumppo, after Cooper's hero in The Deerslayer. Then, immediately, the plot of the novel becomes chase, capture, near torture and death, rescue, and escape, just as in The Deerslayer tale. This is not plagiarism or even borrowing; this is literacy and homage.
This novel is the second in the Thurlow series. It is better than the first, The Keeper's Son, and if Homer Hickam continues at this level, he will be producing something on the order of the Master and Commander series of Patrick O'Brien. There is the potential here for huge success, and if it comes, Hickam will deserve it.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.