Mon December 24, 2007
The Far Reaches
This is an action-adventure novel, a thriller, a yarn, and needs to be taken as such. In the first chapters Thurlow is part of the Marine landing on Tarawa, one of the nastiest battles of all the nasty battles of the Pacific. The Marines went ashore on the wrong tide, the Higgins boats got hung up on the reef and shelled to pieces, and many Marines drowned trying to walk to shore in battle gear. The defending Japanese marines either died in combat or committed suicide. There were nearly no prisoners.
By Don Noble
Huntsville's Homer Hickam made his initial reputation as a nonfiction writer, first with October Sky, which was made into the successful movie Rocket Boys, and other memoirs of childhood in Coalwood, West Virginia. In 2003, however, Hickam turned his attention to fiction. The Far Reaches is his third Josh Thurlow novel.
Thurlow is a native of fictional Killakeet Island, on North Carolina's Outer Banks. In The Keeper's Son, we learn of his childhood, as son of the lighthouse keeper. Thurlow grows up, joins the United States Coast Guard, and leads his men into battle against an invading German submarine. In The Ambassador's Son, Hickam moved Thurlow to the South Pacific, and there Josh has adventures in the Solomons with Lt. John F. Kennedy. In The Far Reaches, Thurlow has been promoted to Captain and is in the Pacific as the eyes and ears of Frank Knox, Secretary of the Navy.
This is an action-adventure novel, a thriller, a yarn, and needs to be taken as such. In the first chapters Thurlow is part of the Marine landing on Tarawa, one of the nastiest battles of all the nasty battles of the Pacific. The Marines went ashore on the wrong tide, the Higgins boats got hung up on the reef and shelled to pieces, and many Marines drowned trying to walk to shore in battle gear. The defending Japanese marines either died in combat or committed suicide. There were nearly no prisoners. In three days of combat, 997 Marines and 30 Navy corpsmen were killed, 88 Marines went missing, and 2,233 Marines and 59 corpsmen were badly wounded. The casualty rate was thirty percent. Normandy would be under ten percent. Of the 125 landing craft, 90 were sunk. It was a catastrophe, but we won. There were 4,713 Japanese dead.
Using a combination of research and his own experience in combat in Vietnam, Hickam has captured the chaos, confusion, courage, incompetence and all around bloodiness of the three-day battle beautifully. Thurlow finds himself in the action, not observing it, and is badly wounded.
At this point, the novel takes an odd and interesting turn. Thurlow, unconscious and feverish, is taken with his bosun, Ready O'Neal, and three Marines to a cluster of fictional islands, three hundred miles away. The islands, officially named Farridges, are called "The Far Reaches." Thurlow is virtually shanghaied, oddly enough, by an Irish nun and some of her native "fella boys." Sister Kathleen had been captured and abused by the Japanese and wants Thurlow and his little band to free her island of Ruka from the vicious, sadistic Colonel Yoshu. Yoshu has tortured and slaughtered whole island populations and seems, at first, an arch villain from central casting.
Matters on these islands, however, are more complicated than they first appear. Sister Kathleen has a secret. Ordinarily, this device, chasing around through one adventure after the next, hoping to learn the nun's secret, could be tiresome. But here, it's not. Hickam keeps the action moving. The men "go native" with beautiful wives right out of Gaugin, and fight the Japanese when the time comes. In the meantime, there are some pretty good discussions of the island's polytheistic religion and how it has absorbed Christianity, and of native sexual practices, childrearing, work, leisure, money, and so on. The bottom line here is, this is a paradise. The sea is full of fish, and the fruit falls off the tree into your hand. Anybody with a grain of sense would go there at once. But then it would be spoiled forever, of course.
The Far Reaches will not be the last Josh Thurlow novel, so naturally he survives. Along the way, thought, there are plenty of surprises and suspense, and the nun's terrible secret is finally revealed.
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.