I have often mentioned before that one of the things I enjoy about historical fiction is the opportunity it provides for me to learn about something that I wouldn’t have otherwise. When I came upon the synopsis for The Wind Is Not A River by Brian Payton, it provided that opportunity to learn about a little known aspect of WWII in a part of the U.S. that we don’t often think about.
Before this book, I had no idea what and where the Aleutian Islands were. I had no idea it was the area where it held the only campaign battle fought on American soil. While I’m a long way from being an expert, this book opened that door for me to learn another aspect of U.S. history that I was completely unaware of. I liked how Payton’s writing and narrative enabled the reader to see the campaign in the Aleutian Islands from two different perspectives: John Easley, being stranded in Japanese-invaded Attu and having to survive (his chapters have a very Robinson Crusoe feel), and Helen, his wife who was determined to risk a lot to follow leads in order to find him and bring him home. Through them, you saw the war taking place in the field and on the homefront. Even though they were separated by distance and circumstances they both undergo changes and insights to themselves and each other as they go through their journeys to bring John home. With John, you get a picture of the (lack of) coverage/knowledge of what is happening in Alaska and how the environment adds another layer of danger to an already dangerous situation to those fighting in the region including how aid and reinforcements are slow coming (if ever) when the environment and climate is taken into consideration. While it’s all about survival, from the surroundings and Japanese armies, for John, his wife Helen is left behind to deal with him leaving and eventually coming to a decision to go after her estranged husband and what it entails. With Helen, considering the times and her gender, it doesn’t leave a lot of options open for her to track leads and make her way to Alaska. It’s with her that you see what programs such as the USO does for those out in the frontline and the importance they have. With her, you see how it work camps/imprisonment existed all over the worlds, even to those living in the Aleutians who were taken from their homes and sent to Japan. Combined, their experiences helped paint a small picture of that time in the Aleutians.
While I’ve mostly focused on the historical aspect of the story, the love story is its heart. Probably why I didn’t rate the book higher was due to my lack of deep connection to the couple themselves. On a logical level I understand that John and Helen do love each other, the fact that you’re getting it, in a way, second hand (since the book begins with John already being in the Aleutians) mostly through Helen’s narrative and reminiscing from both of them, creating a disconnect between me and their relationship. My admiration of Helen comes from her determination to use any means to get herself up to Alaska all in the name of getting her husband home. As one character mentioned when told the truth of Helen’s motivation: “It’s romantic.” I agree it is romantic...in its idea, but unfortunately I never really felt it and thus the story lost some of its impact on me.
Although I’ve read my fare share of wonderful historical fiction, The Wind Is Not A River holds up its own. It was my first regarding the aforementioned topic and that is something to be said. Aside from the book’s historical backdrop, the writing was good with an interesting storyline about love, faith, hope and how much do they contribute to our determination to live or believe in the return of our love ones. Even though its emotional impact wasn’t as high as I hoped for, I can recognize what is being told to me and appreciate it for what it is: a good story taking place during a time and place I didn’t know about before.