Four book reviews: The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, That Time of the Year: A Minnesota Life, and It Can’t Happen Here.
Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
(2013, Audible, 2014), 14 hours 59 minutes
What a complex book. At times I loved it and other times I wondered what I was doing immersing myself within these words. The Narrow Road to the Deep North, a title taken from Basho, a famous Japanese haiku poet from the 17th Century, centers on the life of Dorrigo Evans. An Australian physician and surgeon, Evans reads the great literature of the world and serves in the Army. Captured on Java by the Japanese early in the Second World War, he and his fellow prisoners are sent to Western Thailand to build a railroad to Burma. While the story of the war unifies the novel, this is not just a book about war. Dorrigo carries with him a dark secret, but one of hope. Just prior to the war, he had an affair with Amy, his uncle’s young wife. Her memory haunts him in the jungles of Thailand and even after the war as he continues his career in medicine and begins his own family.
Evans is a complicated character who is thrown into a horrible situation. As the highest-ranking officer among the POWs, he must make decisions to meet the Japanese quota of daily workers along his section of the railroad. These are life and death decisions, but he has no control. All the men are starving and disease prone. At one point, he must pick men for a march into the jungle to another camp. He makes the decision by picking out those with the best shoes. He fights with the Japanese for better food and medical supplies and rest for his men. He establishes a rough surgical hospital. He is tormented when he cannot save a man’s life because he lacks medicines and equipment. Yet, he is loved by the POWs and performs remarkably well despite the situation.
His personal life before and after the war was a mess and continues this way after the war. While he marries and provides well for his family, he is distant. He feels inadequate and guilty. He drowns his pain in numerous affairs. But, when his family is threatened by a fire in the bush, he arises to the occasion. His wife and children are amazed at this. For the first time, the children see his compassion, as well as the risks he takes to save his family.
The story isn’t just about Dorrigo. We are given mini biographies of others who were at the POW camps. Some died there and their ghost remain with Dorrigo and his fellow survivors. Others live on, but their lives have all be affected by the terrible treatment they received as POWs. We also learn about some of the camps guards and Japanese officials during the war and afterwards.
One of the cruelest guards is a Korean, the “Goanna.” Extremely brutal and sadistic in his treatment of prisoners, he is hanged for war crimes. Yet, I felt sorry for him. He was not Japanese. He joined the Japanese army (Japan had annexed Korea in the early 20th Century) for the money. But Koreans were always seen as second-class citizens and instead of being in the real army, they were assigned duty as guards and such. His sister, lured also by money and the promise to help wounded soldiers, became a “Comfort Woman,” essentially a prostitute for the Japanese army. He bore the burden of learning what she had become. He also felt he was just doing his duty for a promise of 50 yen a month (A yen must have been worth a lot more back then!).
Major Nakamura was the camp’s commander. He returns to Japan and hides his identity at first. He finds a job working with the Japanese blood bank. Years later, Nakamura has a conversation with a Japanese doctor who tells of the medical experiences he conducted on American POWs. The doctor confides that they did their duty and are safe as the allied armies want to put the war behind them. The doctor suggests that only the foolish and those from Korea and Taiwan were punished for war crimes.
Flanagan shows the complexity of individuals, who can be compassionate and cruel, capable of appreciation of beauty and able to create what is ugly. Evans shows great compassion and leadership during the war and not so much before or afterwards. For Nakamura, it’s the opposite. He’s savage in the war and mellows afterwards. Not only do we see this through the characters but also through literature (both Western and Japanese). I am going to think about this book for some time to come!
I recommend this book with a warning. The descriptions of the POW experience are very realistic. Parts of the book read like a horror tale. Furthermore, at times, when discussing Evan’s relationships with women, I found myself thinking I could use a little description. Some of these parts seem like I was reading an “adult” romance novel. But when blended, this book left me pondering the human condition.
I listened to the unabridged version of this book on Audible. I have been on the Burma-Thai railroad and to a few of the many huge cemeteries from those who died there: British, Australian, New Zealanders, Dutch, and Indian. These plots remain a sobering place.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses
(2003, Audible release 2018). Read by the author. 7 hours 46 minutes
I found this a delightful book that opened windows of understandings for often overlooked plants. Mosses are some of the simplest plants but are also very complex and important for the wellbeing of our planet. Drawing from her experience as a scientist, who studies moss, as well as her Native American heritage, Kimmerer weaves stories of her family and heritage into the larger story of moss. I enjoyed listening to her lyrical style of composition and since listening to this book, I have been looking at moss everywhere, on shady ground, rocks, on trees, and on rotting wood. I need to purchase and reread this book in print to capture all the names of the types of moss. The book is essentially a natural history of moss. In telling the story of moss, the plant becomes a metaphor for our lives.
“But the world is still unpredictable and still we survive by the grace of chance and the strength of our choices.” (at the end of chapter 12).
Garrison Keillor, That Time of the Year: A Minnesota Life
(New York: Arcade Publishing, 2020), 360 pages including a few photos.
I received this book as a Christmas present and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Having listened to Keillor and the Prairie Home Companion since the 80s, much of the book felt like I was visiting old friends whom I’d met over the radio. This book gives us insight into Keillor’s life and the decisions that led him into radio and to becoming a well-known author. Throughout the book, one has the feeling that Keillor feels blessed with the ability to have done what he did through a radio show. He is gracious in giving thanks to those who have helped him along the way, from teachers and aunts, parents and friends, and to those in the business. He also writes graciously about those who performed on the show and the friends he made along the way. I was shocked to learn he had become friends of Michigan’s author, Jim Harrison. Harrison, best known from his novella that became the movie Legends of the Fall, listened to Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion and the two began a correspondence. Keillor ends the book with a beautiful “sermon” on Psalm 100, which he summarizes as “In other words, lighten up. It isn’t about you. Improve the Hour.”
I am sure there are parts of the book in which Keillor avoided topics and left things out (this is a memoir and not a autobiography, after all). However, he acknowledges the pain he caused to this first wife and the situation which led to him being removed from Public Radio during the rise of the “Me, Too” movement. With the latter, Keillor avoids making his accuser out to be evil, while maintaining his general innocence. He agreed that some of what he said to the woman may have been taken the wrong way but insists there was never anything to their email exchanges that rose to the level of the complaints. His bitterness is at how quickly Minnesota Public Radio decided that he was expendable.
A few quotes:
“Satire is perishable like lettuce.”
“I wanted to have a long retirement and disappear into the sunset and outlive everyone qualified to give my eulogy.”
Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here
(1935, Audible 2016), 14 hours 28 minutes.
I read this book in college or just afterwards, but decided to listen to it again (which I mostly did while driving or walking). The book begins at a civic function in a small town in Vermont in the run up to the 1936 election. While the book moves from character to character, the unifying stream is about a Vermont newspaper editor, Doremus Jessup. Written before the election of 1936, the book creates an alternative to history. FDR doesn’t even win his party’s nomination in 1936. Instead, a rogue candidate, Buzz Windrip, rises to power on the promise of giving everyone $6000 a year. He also has an army of supporters who, soon after taking over as President, goes into action. Quickly, the country descends into fascism. Jessup, who had always played it safe as a newspaper editor, writes an editorial that gets him into trouble. He becomes politically involved with an underground movement. Arrested, Jessup finds himself in a concentration camp. After his escape, he makes his way to Canada to join exiled Americans working for an overthrow of the government.
Surprisingly, although of a serious yet fictional subject matter, there is a lot of humor in this book. These words drip with satire.
This book was written during the era of Huey Long and at the time of the rise of fascism in Europe. While dated, there is much to ponder. Demagogues are dangerous. This would be a good book for America to reread.