“Loose lips sink ships,” declared a popular Second World War slogan used on propaganda posters by the United States Office of War Information. Yet the phrase, which warns of the catastrophic consequences of unguarded talk, only hints at the extent of wartime paranoia.
Wartime censorship, an offshoot of martial intelligence, functions by controlling the public narrative of a government’s military efforts, in hopes of preventing enemies from obtaining strategic information that could be used against them. But as history (and WikiLeaks) has shown us, censorship works as much to appease civilian populations as it does to protect them.
Brian Payton’s new novel The Wind Is Not a River seeks reparation from history by giving light to the “forgotten battle” of the Aleutian Island Campaign – the only battle during WWII to take place on American soil has been reduced to a mere footnote in history.
After the war claims the life of his younger brother Warren, journalist John Easley journeys deep into the northern expanse of Alaska to document the part of the war that took place closest to home, Japan’s occupation of the Aleutian Islands of Attu and Kiska: “If someone isn’t there to observe and record, capture it on the page, it will be as if it never happened. The sacrifices made on our behalf must be known before they can be remembered.” Easley is adamant in his resolve to leave, telling this to his wife, Helen, who responds with an ultimatum: “If you leave now, don’t bother coming back. Because I won’t be here if you do.”
The novel opens with Easley’s eyes looking up to the grey Attu skies. He has just survived a plane crash and lies cloaked in fog behind enemy lines. The only other survivor is a young American soldier named Karl, who enlisted in the war to escape abuses at home. Together they must stave off hunger and the unforgiving cold that has claimed more lives than the Japanese enemy.
In 1935, U.S. Army general Billy Mitchell stated before Congress that “whoever holds Alaska will hold the world.” And while the Aleutian Islands are considered American territory, the Aleut people living on the land are indigenous Alaskans who exist in relative seclusion. To put it swiftly, “The Japs took Attu and Kiska…in June. By the end of July, Uncle Sam took the rest.” The Aleuts became ill-fated casualties of the war; some were imprisoned as POWs by the Japanese, while many more were displaced in internment camps by the U.S. government.
Helen cannot bear to wait around for word from Easley, knowing something must have happened to silence him. She searches for his byline in newspapers, exhausting any information she can find about the war in Alaska: “The Japanese invasion was only briefly mentioned, information about the buildup of U.S. forces has been scant. She has come across no mention of the fate of the Aleut people. As far as the newspapers are concerned, it is as if the islands were uninhabited.”
Helen discovers her call to action in an encounter with her childhood friend Ruth, a Manhattan stage actress who now entertains troops as part of the USO. At the age of 25, Helen has never lived without the protection of a man, first her father, and then Easley. Yet her husband’s absence grants her a newfound sense of autonomy that propels her through her very own mono-myth, singing, dancing and lying her way through Alaska. This is no small feat considering that the men she entertains live far removed from female company – Helen’s father put it best, “You’re dangling raw steak in front of a pack of wolves.”
Easley’s story is perhaps as excruciating as Helen’s is liberating. At times, the novel is so disturbing in its depiction of human frailty that I found myself questioning whether anyone would even want to survive such a harrowing experience. And still, my stomach grumbled in solidarity as Easley’s ribs jutted from his skin. Sharing in his solitude, and being trapped with his wayward thoughts can become painfully introspective for the reader, making the ultimate ending all the more bittersweet.
There’s an immediacy to Payton’s story and his endeavour to reveal this period of wartime censorship, and it resonates beyond the confines of historical fiction. Our current culture of government surveillance and public disclosures of classified information grants further authority to Easley and Helen’s efforts. “People have a right to know what’s going on up here, if this war is coming their way. This is American territory,” Helen declares to a military chaplain, who in turn echoes the familiar sentiments of censor: “Let’s trust our president about what people should or shouldn’t know.”