Book review: The Wind Is Not a River by Brian Payton

As the Second World War consumed Europe, Asia and Africa, a smaller, secret conflict was being waged in a remote corner of Alaska which could have changed the course of history.

Wednesday, 19th February 2014, 9:00 am
The Wind Is Not a River by Brian Payton
The Wind Is Not a River by Brian Payton

In 1942, Japanese forces seized Attu and Kiska, two of the 71 Aleutian Islands, a volcanic chain extending about 1,200 miles west of the Alaskan mainland. The aim was to divert American forces away from the main Japanese attack at Midway Atoll.

Over 2,000 Japanese troops dug in on the islands and American censors imposed a news blackout to hide the invasion from a nervous public. The local Aleut population were evacuated and interned as US generals came to terms with the possibility that these remote islands could be the breach through which the war spilled into North America.

The ensuing campaign – the only one fought on American soil – was one of the toughest battles of the war for US forces and took place well beyond both the press and the public.

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Using the turmoil of a bloody military clash and a wild landscape notorious for its heavy rainfall and chilly fogs, Canadian author Brian Payton weaves a rich and evocative tale of life and death, love and faith, determination and resilience.

In April 1943, Seattle-based journalist John Easley is mourning his younger brother, a Canadian Air Force lieutenant killed in action. His self-destructive grief and his wife Helen’s need and failure to have a baby have combined to place intolerable pressure on their marriage.

Only a year ago he had travelled to the Aleutian Islands on assignment for the National Geographic magazine and now, determined to expose the hidden invasion which he learned about before flying home, he hatches a reckless plan to return.

Using his dead brother’s identity and a sheaf of forged papers, he convinces a US Air Force crew that he is travelling as an observer and hitches a ride to Alaska. But when the plane is shot down, only Easley and young Texan airman Karl Bitburg survive the crash.

As they struggle to escape capture and stay alive in the dark and cold at the edge of the world where gale-force winds accelerate down the mountain slopes in ‘an avalanche of sound and sensation,’ his wife is haunted by her husband’s disappearance and an absence that exposes her sheltered, untested life.

Haunted by their angry parting words and desperate to find him, she leaves behind all she has ever known in Seattle, joins the USO (United Services Organisation) as a troop entertainer and sets out on a 3,000-mile journey to the war in the north. ‘Action,’ John used to say to her, ‘is the only language fit for love.’

Danger and despair will never be far away but in a land where winds rise and fade and rivers flow endlessly, suffering will pass because as the Aleutians say, ‘The wind is not a river.’

Heartbreaking and yet inspirational in its moving depiction of the indomitable nature of the human spirit, The Wind Is Not a River explores how war impacts on ordinary people and the extraordinary sacrifices they are prepared to make.

Using spare prose and understated pathos, Payton conveys the brutality, isolation and suffering of war whilst delivering a memorable romance and a thrilling, action-packed adventure.

This is an emotionally powerful and resonant story packed with painstaking research, a fascinating slice of little-known American history and an intimate portrait of how people cope under intolerable pressure… and how far they will go for love.

(Mantle, hardback, £16.99)