War in Paradise

Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener; published by Curtis Publishing Company, copyright © 1947.B South Pacific

James Michener, an adopted child of a Pennsylvania Quaker, instilled his fictional Tales of the South Pacific from his garrisoned experiences as a Lieutenant Commander in the US Navy during the latter half of his WWII tour of duty. From 1944-1946, he was stationed mainly on Espiritu Santo, a small island on the eastern edge of the Coral Sea, as a naval historian, but he frequently visited other tropical islands in the area.

The short stories collected in this book, which Michener won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, probe the symbiosis and bonds between the American G.I. and frequently, female Pacific Islanders. The tales revolve around mostly the same characters, with a commander generally filling in as the first person narrator, and a few common plot lines such as a forthcoming, but fictitious island invasion.

Michener’s descriptive prose can be captivating and luxurious, sometimes almost hypnotic, such as the sketch of the local song birds on the protagonist’s lover’s plantation in the poignant love story, Our Heroine:

…Their harsh cries were modified by the delicate chirping of a graceful swallowlike bird that flew in great profusion among the cacao trees. This gracious bird was sooty black except for a white breast and belly.  Gliding and twisting through the shadows it looked like a shadow itself. Then bursting into the sunlight, its white body shone brilliantly…

The composition is good, probably better than anything else he wrote later in life but it does not reach the level of a master story-teller such as what Joseph Conrad attained in his Heart of Darkness or a Jack London story, for instance: All Gold Canyon:

…The red-coated many-antlered buck acknowledged the lordship of the spirit of the place and dozed knee-deep in the cool, shaded pool.  There seemed no flies to vex him and he was languid with rest.  Sometimes his ears moved when the stream awoke and whispered; but they moved lazily, with foreknowledge that it was merely the stream grown garrulous at discovery that it had slept…

Tales of the South Pacific is the antithesis of Michener’s future product; short stories versus monstrously thick and wordy novels, crisp and straightforward plot lines versus cloudy and cumbersome themes, and finally a compassionate acknowledgement for his reader’s attention rather than a dismissive condescension for those not willing to commit to consuming his turgid volumes of fictional excess.

Michener wrote one good book: Tales of the South Pacific.

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