on November 7, 2003
This 1947 novel won a Pulitzer Prize and established Michener's reputation as a writer. This book preserves the manners and culture of America circa 1940, both in what he wrote and what he didn't write. Michener shows his artistry in his descriptions of the foliage, flowers, seas, lights, and the people. Michener served in the Navy during WW II, and wrote many other books over the next fifty years. In 1960 he ran for office as a JFK Democrat, in 1968 he was a delegate to the Democratic Convention pledged to RFK.
These stories describe life on the islands of the South Pacific. "Coral Sea" tells of the Japanese invasion fleet that threatened New Zealand. The civilian population would flee to the hills, leaving the old men and boys to guard the beaches with picks and axes; they had no other weapons. "Mutiny" tells of Norfolk Island, the former prison that was inhabited by the descendants of the Mutineers on the Bounty. They had to cut down old pine trees to make an airport. "An Officer and a Gentleman" tells of the Ensign who had too much time on his hands. "The Cave" tells how they received information on Japanese activities until their coastwatcher was eliminated. "The Milk Run" tells of a rescue of a downed pilot. "Alligator" is about the planning and background for the attack on Kuralei in the coming months. "Dry Rot" tells of the skin diseases and other disorders from living on an island in the tropics.
"Fo' Dolla'" subtly explains political economy, the effect of plentiful money on an isolated region, and the interaction of human emotions and power; all wrapped up in a colorful story. The Sea Bees made war souvenirs and grass skirts. "Passion" tells of a problem in censoring personal letters. "A Boar's Tooth" notes the religious ways of some island peoples. Can a pig be sacred? Is pain and suffering at the center of all religions? Was Michener an Agnostic? "Wine for the Mess at Segi" explains the travails of getting refreshments for Christmas. When the celebration ends, they learn they will hit the next beachhead. "The Airstrip at Konora" tells about capturing an enemy-held island and creating a 6,000-foot airstrip from coral.
"Those Who Fraternize" tells about the French colonial planter's society, and their relations with the Navy. "The Strike" describes the Kuralei operations, the Supply Depot, and the masses of goods needed for the invasion. Naval aviators loved baseball caps (did this create the fashion?) The author tells how important it could be to know an admiral! The big attack on the Depot came from a hurricane. An ammunition carrier anchored in the channel exploded; no one ever found out why. "Frisco" tells of the beginning of the assault on Kuralei. This is continued in "The Landing on Kuralei" which describes the landing on the beaches. This is the climax of the book. "A Cemetery at Hoga Point" wraps up the story. Who replaces the good men who died, asks Michener.
We now know that the Japanese code was broken before Pearl Harbor, and our top military leaders knew of their plans. The emphasis was on first winning the war in Europe. The island hopping strategy was based on winning the war with minimal means. Japan lost the war with the Battle of Midway; they gambled on a quick victory, and lost.
on May 22, 2003
Because this is Michener's first published book, because it is different from his subsequent works, and because many people are more familiar with the Rogers and Hammerstein musical than with the book, I will reveal my biases up front. I do not care for epic historicals, and so have never enjoyed Michener's writing before reading Tales of the South Pacific. The musical was Rogers and Hammerstein's second or third collaborative effort, and to me was a poor follow up to Oklahoma.
That said, reading this book gave me the feeling I have when my father and I rummage through his collection of black and white war photos, postcards, and 78 RPM disks from his days as a Chief Petty Officer in the US Navy in and around the South Pacific. Each artifact stimulates a story, many of which are linked to another, and another. Sometimes the stories are about the war theater in Europe or Africa or home in the states. Most often, they are simply about friendships, loss and the discoveries of an eighteen year old doing a man's work in the first few months away from his parents' farm.
Like my father's stories, Michener's Tales of the South Pacific could be set anywhere, but they are about being somewhere other than where one comes from. They are about finding belonging in new surroundings and accepting that great people are rarely 100 percent great. Michener's heroes are the very human people who were decent to one another, believed in the value of their nation's cause and the people around them, demonstrated leadership, but didn't take the trappings of the navy or rank very seriously. His nemeses were not just the Japanese, but American biggots, mean SOBs and phonies. Like Hersey's, Bell for Adano, the stories were practically current events when they were published, and Michener's perspective on sex and the races were shocking material for many Americans who had been fed years of propaganda about their boys (and girls) overseas and who only after 1945 could truly emerge from the depression of 1930s to enter a new, modern and more aggressively democratic age. Tales of the South Pacific foreshadowed the new world to come while honoring the great people who helped to make it possible. At the end of the book, the reader is glad to be among the survivors, standing in the graveyard among heroes, but worried that the supply of greatness might someday be used up.
on November 1, 2002
The omission of this work from the academic canon is another comment on the discriminatory but hardly discriminating state of literary studies today. Michener is far more than a captivating storyteller, collector of colorful characters, painter of vivid natural imagery, and documentor of the orchestrations of world warfare. Each of the "tales" comprising his carefully-constructed epic narrative is at once thematically and stylistically related to the other smaller narratives and at the same time artistically whole in itself.
Attention to two examples will have to suffice: "Our Heroine," the story of Nellie Forbush, is a shocking expose of racism, delivering a blow that causes the reader to reel as much as comparable explosive moments in Flannery O'Connor. When the character learns that her fiance's former lover is dead and rejoices not because a rival has been removed but because a black person has been eliminated, Nellie would seem to be beyond the redemption experienced even by O'Connor's most degenerate souls. But in an earlier story about "the Remittance Man" Michener's narrator has constructed a definition of heroism, allowing us to see how Nellie's change of heart qualifies her for inclusion. And the famous "Bali Hai" chapter, far from an escapist love story, is at once romantic tragedy in the tradition of "Madame Butterfly" and tragicomedy in its portrayal of accessory characters who recall the nurse and friar in "Romeo and Juliet" and Pandarus in Chaucer's and Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida." And once again the narrative definition of the "heroic" allows us to see the tragedy play out not merely as a tale of star-crossed lovers but as a drama of necessary choices and their painful consequences. Joe Cable's venture into the Dionysian produces self-discovery because ultimately it becomes a "shared discourse" with his dark-skinned, native lover, who turns out to have a history of her own.
Michener is as likely to locate the heroic away from the war as on island battlefields or the Pacific main, because his real subject is human nature and the courage to live in the face of obstacles both natural and human. To their credit, Rodgers and Hammerstein detected (and partially, if unevenly, captured) the strength in Michener's novel: Each of us has a Bali Hai, and our failures to reach it can be traced as much to failures of courage as to the ironclad circumstances of existence.
on August 10, 2002
I picked up this book looking for some vivid imagery of the South Pacific to help build anticipation for my upcoming vacation to Bora Bora, which is said to have been the basis for Michner's fantastical Bali Hai. While this book wasn't quite what I was expecting, it was a terrific narrative of the war in the Pacific, and in several places painted a colorful picture of the natural beauty of South Pacific islands.
A contrast to most wartime fiction I've read, the vast majority of this book occurs a great distance from the action. This distance causes the characters to reflect upon their role and purpose in the war, and forces them to preoccupy themselves with whatever they have available to them. The need to amuse themselves leads to this collection of entertaining antidotes, from courting nurses in a nearby hospital, to speculating about the mysterious life of a distant spy, to distributing medicine to a beautiful island of native women.
Michener saves his best for last, as he releases the tension built upon the endless island waiting in an abrupt storm of war as he masterfully details the chronology of an island invasion. After the battle the characters reveal what they have learned about heroism and wartime contribution.
While the characters in this book are lovable and memorable, Tales of the South Pacific doesn't leave you wondering what happens to them next. Rather, you wish the novel's focus could pan to another nearby island and start the whole process again, meeting and watching the next crew of airmen, officers, and enlisted men, as they wait for their chance to fight the enemy.
I had to assume that the details of this novel were historically accurate (despite being a work of fiction), since it is said Michener wrote this novel while in a quansett hut on one such island.
If you are going to read this novel, I would recommend making a conscious effort to remember names and places, because as the book progresses, familiar faces and intertwining references to past stories become more and more frequent. I have still not seen the musical, so I can make no comparison with the film or stage show.
on December 11, 2000
To use an old cliche, this book gives the reader a sense of "being there" during the Second World War in the Pacific theater.
This is not a chronicle of the war itself. It is not a military history, although it is full of military anecdotes. It's a series of loosely connected stories of the prolonged island-hopping campaign across the Pacific, related through the personal experiences of a variety of characters. Michener's emphasis is on the individuality, humor, valor, and idiosyncrasies of the men and women who populated the bases and combat units of the Pacific campaign.
As anyone who has seen the musical "South Pacific" (based on a part of this book) knows, it includes the island natives and expatriates who happened to live in the places where the war was taking place. In reading these stories, you may come to understand why many of the armed forces veterans of the Pacific war were drawn to go back to the islands in later years.
If I were limited to one sentence, I'd say that this book is about everyday Americans doing unusual jobs in exotic places. I like it well enough that I've read it multiple times and consider it a favorite. It's a lot easier reading than many of Michener's later epics, and in my opinion it's as good as anything he's ever written and better than most.
on June 25, 1999
I first read this book when I was young, not long after I saw the movie "South Pacific". I didn't particularly like it because the characters were the same ones as in the movie but they didn't "fit" in the same way. After many, manyy years, I read it just the other night and loved it! It had been long enough since I saw the film that the characters could stand on their own. Mitchener wrote this soon after the war when his memories were still fresh and he displays a great deal of affection for the "typical" sailor caught thousands of miles from home. For many, they would never get home. To this American tale, he adds a lot of tropical spice: Bloody Mary, the Frenchman's Daughter, Emil De Becque himself. Mitchener shows the American fighting man as hero, coward, nice guy, louse, sacrificial, selfish, and mostly a combination of all of these traits. Although I have read many of Mitchener's books, this is still his best: young, filled with Mitchener's memories from his recently-concluded naval service during World War II. Deservedly one of the classics that came from World War II.
on October 15, 1997
Liquor, love, babes, war, ships, planes, etc.! You name it and Michener included it somewhere in his book. Tales of the South Pacific is a book that is written to make many different points about human nature and war. Many of the characters whom the reader is made to sympathize with show the aspects of human life. These characters are also brought to the piont that the only thing they will ever have is what they had doubted the entire war... heroism. These short stories are written in a heavy style that becomes too much work to read sometimes. Even so, the reader is brought along by wondering about the welfare of the special character that they feel close to. This writing is best if one can take brakes through-out the book to let their mind catch up with the story. This book was interesting, yet overall the way in which the characters are represented made the book come alive with emotions.
on April 27, 2004
This is a collection of 'tales' but together they are also linked as a complete story about a group of people that is preparing for a strike on an island held by the Japanese in the Pacific in WW II.
The stories are about love, infedelity, loving native girls, pregnancy, marriage but also sadness, war, and ultimately death during the strike when some of the characters use their live, and not always in a flattering way.
It is also a book describing the beauty of the islands in the South Pacific (Bali Ha'I) and the kindness of the native people. The story about the boar's tusks is amazing. One of the last stories is about all the men before they start fighting, they talk about their time in San Francisco, for most the last place they were in the US.
It's a lot different than his others books, especially a lot thinner. It's magically written and sometimes heartbreaking.
on May 9, 1997
Its all here - fantastic locations, gripping stories love, death, war, bigots and racists, hope, waiting waiting waiting on desolate coral atols, disease, cowards and heros, an ancient avenue of noble pines cut down for a runway, a mountain moved in a week, wild tribes, brutal nature, life lived and lost. Michener wrote the book before being assigned the job described by the narrator. Read the book and rent the video SOUTH PACIFIC for fantasic songs and romance (I especially like the way they slip the red filter over the lense for each song - glorious 50's color). Like all good books this is about much more than is subject
on June 25, 1998
This is a wonderful collection of stories. It captures how young naive and idealistic americans find themselves thousands of miles from home in a strange environment involved in an epic struggle which will not only change the characters, but also the course of US history. Unlike many of his other works, which focus on history and happen to throw in some characters, this focus of this book is the characters: Bloody Mary, Lt. Joe Cable, Bus Adams. Tony Fry). Each of these characters is particularly memorable (in sharp contrast to some such works as Hawaii, Centenial). This is Michener's best and I highly recommend it.