Box Of Paperbacks Book Club: The Bridges At Toko-Ri by James Michener (1953)

Box Of Paperbacks Book Club: The Bridges At Toko-Ri by James Michener (1953)

(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 25.)

I'm not sure how much he's read these days but James Michener used to be unavoidable. He won a Pulitzer in 1948 for Tales Of The South Pacific, his first book. Published when he was 40, it was inspired by his WWII experiences as an historian for the U.S. Navy. When not writing straight non-fiction, he continued to mix history and fiction for decades, writing up to his 1997 death at the age of 90. Apart from Tales Of The South Pacific (and the musical it inspired), and the book we're talking about today, he's best known for massive tomes that use fiction to delve into the history of a particular place, time, or people like Hawaii, Poland, The Source (a history of the Jews), Space, and Boise. (Note: I made one of those up.) I've never read any of them. I vaguely remember watching a miniseries of Space when I was in 6th grade and finding it pretty dull. That same year, I remember my English teacher saying she usually skimmed most books instead of reading every word, using Hawaii as an example of a good book to skim. I already knew that skimming wasn't really reading. It was one of the first moments I realized that teachers could be totally full of shit. I read every word of The Bridges At Toko-Ri, not that there are that many of them. A slim novel written before Michener began to write by the pound, it's a quick tale of the Navy's attempts to knock out the eponymous bridges during the Korean War. Much of the responsibility falls on the shoulders of a reluctant pilot named Harry Brubaker, an attorney from Denver called up against his wishes to fight. He's a dutiful, if unhappy soldier and much of the book's tension stems from the conflict between desire and duty. Almost killed when dumped into a freezing sea in the novel's opening chapter, he then spends a mostly happy sojourn with his wife and kids, who have pulled some strings to spend some leave time with him in Japan. Then he returns to service. Also in service, Admiral George Tarrant, a fatherly commander who knows too well the toll military life can take, and Mike Forney, a colorful helicopter pilot who spends much of the book fighting, or locked up for fighting, when another man steals his Japanese girlfriend. But when called into action, he's ready. As is a character named Beer Barrel, a signalman allowed to drink because, he claims, the booze helps him maintain equilibrium with the ship's movements. If it sounds like we're in the sort of WWII movie made during or immediately after the war, that's because the novel feels a lot like one. The characters are sympathetic, familiar, light on nuance, and prone to speeches. The book keeps driving home the necessity of sacrifice for the greater good, and there's an emphasis on the details of day-to-day military operation. If he had a cinematic model in mind, Michener might have been thinking of John Ford's great They Were Expendable, which let one particular area of military operations–in that case, PT boats–stand in for the whole of the war. Of course, there's a big difference. This is a Korean War story and it's filled with talk about how nobody back home wants the war. Even Brubaker's wife doesn't want it. Barrant, however, is not having any of it:

Then the admiral grew glum, for Mrs. Brubaker had told him at lunch, "If the government dared to ask women like me, this stupid war would end tomorrow." There lay the confusion. The bright, lovely women, whose husbands had to do the fighting wanted to end the war on any terms; but these same women, whose children would have to live through servitude or despair should America ever be occupied, would be the precise ones who would goad their men into revitalization and freedom. So Admiral Tarrant never argued with women because in their own deep way they were invariably right. No more war but no humiliation. He hoped to see the day when this difficult program could be attained.

Oh, women. Will they ever learn? Leaving aside the sexism, that's one of several examples of passages addressing the difficulty of noble service in the interest of an unpopular war and the great divide between the soldiers fighting it and those at home just talking about it. I doubt if he knew at the time it was a preview of every subsequent American war to come. Michener's book pretty much buys into the necessity of the Korean War unquestioningly, even verging on propaganda. Even with a little distance from the Cold War and its many eruptions, I'm not sure if he's right or wrong but my modern eyes find the way he refers to the enemy soldiers simply as "communists" a little distasteful, though I'm not entirely sure why. It's accurate enough, I guess. (As a side note: My dad served in the Korean War and in some ways I'm grateful for almost any kind of depiction of it since it tends to be kind of forgotten. I'm glad Washington D.C. finally gave it a memorial, and a nice one at that.) Still, the book plays more on its readers' affection for its characters than its hatred of the enemy and it works pretty well in raising hopes that Brubaker won't meet the fate foreshadowed in virtually every paragraph. Or is it forecast? Apparently The Bridges At Toko-Ri enjoyed a second life as an English class text in at least one school as my copy came marked up with the enthusiasm of an overzealous student named Debbie who studied under someone named Mrs. Brink during fifth hour in Room 112. I learned from reading the information inside the front cover. Debbie marked ever moment of foreshadowing with the word "forecast" and took detailed notes on almost every page. An example:

Maybe the extra careful attention increased her enjoyment–no skimming for her!–as she joined Herman Wouk in the chorus of critics praising the book by adding her own review:

I wouldn't go that far. And I don't know that I'm in a hurry to read more Michener. But I liked it well enough, maybe because it felt un-American not to. I'm also a bit curious about the film version with William Holden, Grace Kelly, and Mickey Rooney. It seems like it used to be on TV all the time but it seems not to be on DVD. In the meantime, I'll be reading

Next: Down In The Black Gang by Philip Jose Farmer

Then: From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming

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