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"Dispatches" it ain't
on June 1, 2004
I picked this up used last summer and, in light of ongoing world events, it seems as appropriate as any war story to read now. Indeed it may be more useful than most, since it is based on a point of view shared by many older Americans but not as many younger ones. This is from WWII, the Pacific Theater of course, a time and place where Americans felt they were fighting the good fight, and maybe they were. Still, this book presents a very serious subject - war - with unapologitic racism and, generally, a "white man's burden" perspective.
The writing itself is spare and Hemingway-esque, a good choice for the subject matter. Like Micheal Herr in the Vietnam-era "Dispatches", the author writes about the fighting from a distance, though Michener appears to have been a naval officer. Unlike Herr, Michener is uncritical of the idea of war, but he does show some of the seamier side of the soldiers' lives, for example their relationships with native women. The writing carries one along and builds (unevenly) to the climax, an island invasion that is bloody in a clinical way. No agonizing over spilled guts here, the attitude is "we had a job to do and we did it and blah blah." For those used to post-Vietnam literature, this may seem a bit cold.
I have read other Michener books, I recall Poland and The Covenant specifically, and Tales is clearly superior in readability and literary quality. Michener's historical novels suffer from forced, dragging plots, cardboard characters, and endless page counts, but Tales seems to be alive with real, if not always sympathetic, people.
All in all, a book worth reading if you are interested in the war, but hardly a complete source for any perspective.