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The Wind Is Not a River

by Brian Payton

Vancouver author Brian Payton is best known for wilderness-focused non-fiction, such as Shadow of the Bear and The Ice Passage. With The Wind Is Not a River, a tale of love and survival set during the Second World War, Payton returns to fiction for the first time since his 2001 debut novel, Hail Mary Corner.

The story’s backbone involves a little-known historical incident: the largely forgotten Japanese occupation of Alaska’s westernmost Aleutian Islands, culminating in the Battle of Attu – the war’s only battle fought on American soil. John, a journalist, is stranded on Attu after the U.S. Air Force bomber he is travelling in crashes. His struggle to survive the harsh environment, while simultaneously evading thousands of occupying Japanese troops, unfolds in chapters that alternate with his wife Helen’s seemingly hopeless journey from Seattle to find him. Using a combination of tenacity and bluff, Helen heads to the Aleutians as a USO entertainer, offering readers another fascinating perspective on this theatre of conflict.

The Wind Is Not a River is driven by these twin plot lines, elucidated through first-person, present-tense narration that emphasizes the perilous nature of the drama. Sustained doubt about whether John and Helen will be reunited makes the book quite a page-turner, even when it borders on melodrama. John’s physical and psychological ordeal is particularly powerful: the daily battle for warmth, food, shelter, and sanity is presented with discomfitting realism and engaging invention. Payton’s gift for describing wilderness, in terms both lyrical and informative, adds to the tense pleasures of John’s chapters.

Once the plot strands converge, however, the novel peters out disappointingly. Except for a mighty twist delivered with remarkable restraint, the final chapters can’t compete with the earlier tension. They ramble toward conclusions about love, faith, and separation that are unconvincing partly because the questions are not adequately posed in the preceding pages. Less problematic, but notable in an otherwise accomplished novel, are occasional lapses into redundant detail: repeated observations about the deadliness of the cold, or the risk posed by sniper fire, are unnecessary within the context of Payton’s generally more reserved prose.


Reviewer: Patricia Maunder

Publisher: HarperCollins Canada


Price: $29.99

Page Count: 312 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 978-1-44342- 373-1

Released: Jan.

Issue Date: 2014-3

Categories: Fiction: Novels