TALES OF THE SOUTH PACFIC by James Michener is a rare book which communicates what it felt like to be involved in WWII. The budding genius author Michener had the privileged viewpoint of being “embedded” with the Navy during the war. He then lightly fictionalizes, organizes, and distills his experiences into 19 highly varied short stories which communicate something about what it felt like, and what it meant.
I am fascinated by WWII and, have read probably a hundred books by historians, memoirs by soldiers and sailors, and so forth. Those are wonderful books but, they are nonfiction and fairly dry. They tell you a lot about what happened and why, but not much about how it felt.
For example, take WAR IN THE BOATS by William Ruhe. This is a WWII Pacific submarine memoir and an exact contemporary of TOTSP. The difference is, Ruhe is not a novelist. He tells you as best he can, what it was like but, one must be a mature reader to project context, feelings, and meaning onto the (indisputably incredible) story he tells. That is to say, Ruhe gives you the skeleton but it’s quite dry to read.
As I get older I often prefer more facts and less embellishment but, that’s because I am better able to fill in the details myself, and also the embellishment is often poorly done and ends up reducing your trust in the author and detracting from the story.
Michener is talented enough that, he embellishes terrifically and, is becoming one of my special authors:
I first read Michener’s HAWAII during a trip to that isle. Intrigued, I dug into Michener’s origins and discovered TALES OF THE SOUTH PACIFIC, published in 1947. It won the Pulitzer Prize and was adapted by Rogers & Hammerstein for the musical SOUTH PACIFIC.
After this amazing beginning Michener went on to become one of the 20th century’s most prolific authors, writing huge historical epics (HAWAII was the first).
I found TALES OF THE SOUTH PACIFIC to be more literary than HAWAII. Whereas Hawaii was a “historical epic genre novel”, his ambition in this book is more intimate and personal, and more true, like literature is true, with difficult to express real human situations, and great breadth.
Michener, an orphan raised by a Quaker, made very good use of his fortune, to the point where in wikipedia I read: “Michener became a major philanthropist, donating more than US$100 million to educational and writing institutions.”
I haven’t read his other epics yet although I think THE SOURCE may be next on my list.