James A. Michener was a World War II aviator. In 1949, convinced that America’s future was linked with Asia’s, he decided to return to the South Pacific “to write a kind of book that . . . had never been tried before.”
The result is Return to Paradise, a collection of essays about the island nations of the South Pacific interspersed with short stories set in those countries.
Today it’s obvious why this kind of book hadn’t been tried before: it just does not work.
Michener could make a bus schedule interesting. His essays mix tidbits of trivia with a broad historical perspective. But much of his commentary needs footnotes today: Was $2200 a year big money in 1948 or chicken feed?
The short stories, however, are timeless. Beautifully written, they plunge deep into human relationships.
“Until They Sail,” explores what happens to women when all the able-bodied mean are gone to war. Another stunner is “The Jungle,” which explores what American women want from their men through the unlikely lens of a vacation to Guadalcanal aboard a tramp steamer.
A historian might make a great book today from juxtaposing Michener’s essays with contemporary views of the same islands. Until such a historian comes along, stick to reading Michener’s short stories: they don’t date.Return to Paradise
by James A. Michener
Random House, 1951
My grade C—
1951 bestseller #8
© Linda Gorton Aragoni