One-Minute Book Reviews

August 7, 2008

You Don’t Need to Be a Cockeyed Optimist to Enjoy James Michener’s ‘Tales of the South Pacific’ and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘South Pacific’

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Bali-ha’i is calling to a new generation of readers and theatergoers

Tales of the South Pacific. By James Michener. Fawcett, 384 pp., $7.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

By the end of his career James Michener was writing books so gassy and bloated, critics joked that you didn’t review them – you weighed them on a freight scale. But it wasn’t always so.

Michener won the Pulitzer Prize for Tales of the South Pacific, his first work of fiction, which shows a flair for storytelling that ebbed later in his life. Inspired by Michener’s work as a naval officer in World War II, the book is perhaps best known as the inspiration for the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific.

But Tales of the South Pacific stands on its own and has a surprising lightness next to behemoths like Texas, Alaska and Centennial. It gathers 19 related tales about U. S. servicemen and –women and others trying to fend off alternating terror and tedium on beautiful coral islands as Japanese bombers fly overhead.

One plotline describes efforts by Ensign Nellie Forbush to resist her attraction to the French planter Emile de Beque (who in South Pacific courts her with “Some Enchanted Evening,” which she soon counters with “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair”). A second and darker narrative thread follows a Tonkinese woman known as Bloody Mary who, when not selling shrunken human heads to sailors, offers her nubile daughter to a Marine for trysts on Bali-ha’i.

Both romances involve people of different backgrounds, and some critics have called Tales of the South Pacific a plea for tolerance. It’s a fair assessment but one that may owe less to Michener than to Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics for “You’ve Got to Be Taught,” which says that people learn how to hate. And you don’t read Michener, even at his best, for theme: You read him for a sense of a time and place and, above all, for story.

Michener delivers all those in Tales of the South Pacific, a book especially memorable for its glimpses of rank-and-file members of the armed forces. You know exactly what he means when he says that “It was sort of nice to think that your outfit had a guy stupid enough to pay fifty dollars for a human head … It gave you something to talk about.” His servicemen embrace distractions, however ironic, from thoughts of the death and what faithless girlfriends might be doing back home.

Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, also set on a Pacific island during World War II, stands taller with critics than Michener’s more enjoyable book. But South Pacific has helped to keep Tales of the South Pacific in print. All the more reason, then, to welcome the wonderful first-ever Broadway revival of the musical now playing the Vivian Beaumont. You don’t have to be – as Nellie Forbush sings – a cockeyed optimist to expect to find pleasure in Michener at his best.

Best line: “In Albuquerque Harbison married the daughter of a wealthy family. She was a Vassar graduate and found Bill a fine combination of dashing Western manhood and modest cultural attainment. He at least knew what the Atlantic Monthly was.”

Worst line: In the last few pages Michener sounds as though he’s channeling Mammy in Gone With the Wind when he brings on a black caretaker at a cemetery, who speaks this way: “Me ’n’ Denis, we is bof’ cullud. He f’um Geo’gia. I f’um Mississippi.”

Quote: On why islands like Bali-ha’i seemed magical: “It is a miracle of the South Pacific that islands which are relatively only a few miles away are rarely seen. Hot air, rising constantly from steaming jungles, makes omnipresent clouds hover above each island. So dense are they that usually they obscure and often they completely hide the islands they attend. So it is that an island like Vanicoro, only 16 miles away, might rarely be seen, and then only after torrential rains had swept the sky clear of all but high rain clouds, equalizing temperatures over the entire vast sea. Then, for a few hours, islands far distant might be seen.”

Published: 1947 (first edition), 1984 (Fawcett reprint).

Furthermore: Michener the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for Tales of the South Pacific, which Rodgers and Hammerstein adapted for South Pacific. The first-ever Broadway revival of the musical opened in April

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who wrote the novels The Accidental Bride and Manhattan on the Rocks.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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