The Sand Pebbles shows gunboat diplomacy’s murky underside

sailing on Yangtzee River
Yangtzee River

In 1925, Jack Holman becomes a Sand Pebble, one of the U. S. Navy seamen assigned to the San Pablo, an aging gunboat that patrols the Yangtze River. Jack’s a loner whose passion is engines.

He quickly learns the San Pablo is “a home and a feeder,” where coolies do the work and living conditions are easy.

Jack’s eagerness to make the engine room run perfectly raises the ire of those content to leave all the work to the coolies. And when he teaches one of the ordinary coolies how engines work, he makes the head of the coolie engine crew lose face.

Jack resents the battleship drill imposed by the impeccably Navy skipper, Lt. Collins, but he makes an effort to fit in, make friends. He even meets a girl he likes and could even love.

Shirley Eckert has come to teach at the China Light Mission run by belligerent missionary convinced the presence of the gunboats cause resentment among the Chinese and cause more problems than they solve.

One of Shirley’s brightest Chinese students becomes involved in the revolution. Shirley and the other China Light missionaries feel safe knowing Cho-jen’s political genius will protect them from even the resentment against Americans that the Navy’s river patrols arouse.

The Sand Pebbles have nothing to protect them from the Chinese resentment or from Lt. Collins’s patriotic fervor.

Richard McKenna plots his story with military precision. The characters are cleanly drawn, utterly believable, bewilderingly human.

And, if that were not enough, from his own service on a Yangtze River gunboat, McKenna has insights into the Chinese landscape and culture that help contemporary readers understand events in the Far East today.

The Sand Pebbles
by Richard McKenna
Harper & Row, 1962
597 pages
1963 bestseller # 9
My grade: A
 

Photo credit: Three Gorges by GoldDuck

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni
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Linda Aragoni

I read. I write. I think. I make big ideas simple. I help teachers teach expository writing to teens and adults. In my free time, I read and review old novels.

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