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Hopefully, everyone knows this story from the outstanding movie version.  It's the Spring of 1945, WWII is almost over and Lt. Doug Roberts is still stuck aboard the cargo ship USS Reluctant.  His heartfelt desire to see some action before the war ends is continually thwarted by the tyrannical Captain Morton, who realizes that Roberts is the only thing holding the ship together.  Heggen's very funny novel portrays the running battle between Roberts and Morton and the concurrent battle between the crew and boredom as the Reluctant meanders the South Pacific well out of harm's way.

Like several other of the best novels of WWII--Catch-22 (read review), From Here to Eternity (read review), The Caine Mutiny and A Bell for Adano (read review)--the novel eschews hagiography to portray the American soldier (sailor) as being as much at war with the petty tyranny of "friendly" bureaucrats as with any enemy.  This wholly American theme is somehow overlooked when people talk of WWII as a "good" war, in contrast to bad wars like Korea & Vietnam.  You also don't hear this view when folks start prattling about the "Greatest Generation".  It's become fashionable to look back through rose tinted glasses and turn the War into something from a Why We Fight propaganda film, with all the participants noble and willing, all their actions righteous and all doubts fleeting or nonexistent.  This simplistic version of  events does violence to the truth and does a real disservice to history and to our ability to learn from that history.

The quality of the literature that emerged from WWII is especially high, an inevitable result of the very fact that it was a World War, drawing upon the entire young manhood of the nation.  We are extraordinarily lucky that they have bequeathed us a treasure trove of brutally honest books, remarkably free of self congratulation or justification.  Hopefully, they will continue to be read and will serve as a corrective to the ridiculous idealization of the War in recent popular culture and a reminder that the massive bureaucratic superstructure that we develop to fight wars, is itself an enemy of freedom.


Grade: (B+)


See also:

Sea Stories
Book-related and General Links:
    -REVIEW: of WRITERS IN AMERICA The Four Seasons of Success. By Budd Schulberg SOME SECOND-ACT PROBLEMS (Donald Hall, NY Times Book Review) Hiroshima (1946)(John Hersey 1914-93)(#1 on The Top 100 Works of Journalism In the United States in the 20th Century)

Originally published in the New Yorker, this brief but powerful book recounts the story of six survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.  Through the steady accumulation of horrific details and the avoidance of polemic, Hersey confronts the reader with a matter of fact account of the devastation that followed in the wake of the bomb.  In the final pages, when he raises the question of whether the bombing was moral, he allows the reader to decide.   By providing this absorbing portrait of the consequences, he has enabled readers to, at least, make a better informed decision.


    -REVIEW: of Hiroshima (John Toland, NY Times Book Review)
    -Bio (John Hersey High School)
    -The Top 100 Works of Journalism In the United States in the 20th Century (NYU School of Journalism)
    -Hiroshima Home Page
    -ESSAY : The Publication of John Hersey's Hiroshima in The New Yorker (Steve Rothman)
    -REVIEW: of THE CALL     (Eva Hoffman, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of THE CALL (Robert McAfee Brown, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: The Call by John Hersey (John K. Fairbank, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW; of FLING And Other Stories John Hersey (Vance Bourjaily, NY Times Book review)
    -REVIEW: of BLUES By John Hersey. (Verlyn Klinkenborg, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Algiers Motel Incident by John Hersey (Edgar Z. Friedenberg, NY Review of Books)

If you liked Hiroshima, try:

Rhodes, Richard
           -The Making of the Atomic Bomb

    -Mister Roberts (1955)