Love's true test

This memorable story is about courage, truth, love and survival. The fortitude, affection and loyalty of ordinary individuals pitted against the overwhelming destruction of war, is portrayed with deep empathy and humanity. 
 
The Wind Is Not a River is set against a little known battle of World War II, in the Aleutian Islands bridging the narrow sea separating Alaska in mainland North America from Russia and Japan. 

Shortly after their attack on Pearl Harbour, the Japanese successfully seized the islands of Kiska and Attu in the Aleutian Chain. 

From this strategically located US territory, the Japanese planned to invade mainland US and Canada. 

Journalist John Easley is on an assignment in the Aleutians at the time of this Japanese attack.

The US War Department orders Easley along with the entire press corps out of Alaska.

American authorities do not want the public to know that the enemy has captured and occupied US territory. 

John returns, and sneaks back into the war zone in search of truth, and to overcome grief at losing his brother in the war. 

As a journalist, he feels that if an invasion is impending, the people of US and Canada have the right to know and be prepared.

John leaves on his quest against the wishes of his wife Helen. John’s plane is shot over the icy bleakness of Attu, and he is stranded “in the dark and the cold at the edge of the world... 

The wind sweeps down the hills and howls at the lip of the cave. Nose, chin, cheeks grow numb as the coals grow weak and perish.” 

“When John Easley opens his eyes to the midday sky his life does not pass before him. He sees instead a seamless sheet of sky gone gray from far too many washings.” 

John’s fellow survivor young “Airman First Class Karl Bitburg looks like a child dressed in his father’s clothes. A costume hung off a thin frame. A dirty sack of angles: elbows, shoulders, knees.”

With such sharp and immediate images, Brian Payton does a superb job of bringing to life a harsh and remote battleground. 

In clear and crisp prose, he involves readers deeply with the characters and their struggles.

Lack of food, shelter, warmth and sleep, and hopelessness dogs John at every step. John’s bonding with Karl is cut short when the young airman commits suicide in despair. 

John is left in the company of hallucinations and regrets about his parting tiff with Helen. 

He hides from the enemy and clings on to life, week after week, by hunting wild birds, mussels and roots. 

Nature in this remote battle zone in the Arctic region is as fearsome as the war itself. 

“Despite the determination of the Japanese... half the American casualties result from exposure to the elements. Hundreds of men are losing their feet, others are coming down with hypothermia.”

A Japanese soldier spots John, and follows him to his cave hideout. 

John kills him in panic, only to learn that the Japanese had admired his courage and come to offer gifts and sympathy. Starving and stricken with festering infections, John is finally rescued by advancing American forces, only to face a Japanese suicide attack. 

“Dead men splayed, tangled, split in two by hand grenades clutched right against their chests.” 

The American staff sergeant notes; “First, they kill their own wounded before coming after ours. 

Kill the helpless men, then blow themselves to smithereens... Where’s the honor in that?

” Such striking scenes prevent John’s struggles from sinking into monotony, and forcefully outline the senselessness and bitter ironies of war.

Meanwhile, full of regret at her parting tiff with John, Helen sets out to find her missing husband.

Her love will not allow her to give up on him. 

Helen is a sweet, strong and admirable character, but she is not always portrayed with as much vivid immediacy as John. 

She leaves her ailing father behind a little too easily. 

She struggles to find a way to the Aleutian war zone, resorts to subterfuges, fends off unwanted attention of soldiers, and offers her amateur singing skills to entertain soldiers at the front. 

Her initial challenges and struggles aren’t quite as heart-wrenching as John’s. 

But Helen’s adventures and strength of character grab us with full immediacy after she reaches the US base at Adak in the Aleutians. 
 
After a brilliant buildup, the novel ends a little abruptly. 

The concluding events and emotions could have been further explored. 

Overall, this is an enlightening and moving read. 

The author takes us to a remote and little known scene of battle, and explores in depth the many aspects of war; its heroism, subterfuges, pointless violence, sacrifices, and the anger and disappointments it brings. 

Payton’s clear and spare but lyrical prose delights, as he brings to life the stark beauty and lurking dangers of the Arctic landscape. 

This novel also surpasses our expectations as a love story. Can true love really overcome all odds and thrive, when all hope seems lost? 

Can love survive and help the lover grow, when the partner is absent? Such complexities and nuances make John and Helen’s “a love story like no other.”

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