Return to Paradise by James Michener (1951. Dial. ISBN 978-0-8129-8677-8)

Finally. After the Grisham debacle, The Reckoning, where a modern day writer began his tale of heroism in the South Pacific brilliantly, only to have it fade into nonsense at the book’s conclusion, I feel fulfilled. This collection is unique in that Michener gives us both an essay about a place (for example, New Zealand) and a short fictional story about folks who live there (such as “Until They Sail”, which happens to be my favorite piece of fiction in the book). My friend, Nancy McVean, picked this book out when she and her husband Ron were vacationing on Kaua’i and wandering around their favorite (and only) bookstore on the Garden Island. She knew I liked books about places I’ve been to and so, Return to Paradise was part of this year’s Christmas present. I’m glad she gave it to me.

Now to the critique. Whereas Grisham’s latest novel seemed to lose steam, perhaps because the author wrote himself into a corner or perhaps because, quite simply once the historical portion of the tale was complete, he lost interest in the topic (The Bataan Death March), Michener’s essays and short stories hold up well from beginning to end. What is so gratifying to me as a writer is that this effort was accomplished by one of our best in mid-career, before he engaged a cadre of researchers to do his leg work or resorted to “co-writing” with lesser lights (take note, James Patterson and others!). Here’s a sample of the type of splendid writing I’m talking about:

The days of that dreadful autumn were rainy, cold, and dismal. Barbara tried her best-in the house of five women and no men-to keep spirits alive. She baked special goodies for their teas, instituted a program of reading each night at least four poems from The Oxford Book of English Verse, but the love lyrics were so lacerating to the heart that by common consent this was stopped. And week by week, the Japs came closer…And then titanic hope burst like a mighty spring flower all across New Zealand. The 1st Marine Division landed from America, and with it came astonishing stories of equipment, superb young men, and hope.

There. Concise, tight, and well executed writing that makes an author smile. Michener’s essays set the stage for the actions, emotions, and successes or failures of his myriad characters in multiple exotic locales. From Fiji to Australia, readers are side by side with the author for a wild and wonderful trip through the South Pacific. The final essay, where Michener pontificates about the changing geopolitical nature of America’s relationship with Asia, is spot on and, in this time of Little Rocket Man and The Orange Headed One, troubling to say the least.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5. A valuable and scintilating look at the islands of the Pacific.

Peace.

Mark

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