Middling 1963 novels are best entertainers

The best novels from 1963’s bestseller list are not the most memorable.

The Battle of Villa Fiorita  and Elizabeth Appleton are extraordinarily detailed pictures of rather ordinary people by fine writers. Rumer Godden and John O’Hara, respectively, make the ordinary characters of those novels assume importance for the duration of their novels.

Once the covers are closed and the book jackets are straightened, however, the fascination dissipates. The casts of Villa Fiorita and Elizabeth Appleton are just too ordinary to be memorable.

By contrast, John Rechy’s City of Night is memorable because its protagonist and its subject are far from mainstream. The fact that Rechy states his theme repeatedly helps, too. Rechy’s novel isn’t entertaining at all.

Between those two extremes are three good, but aging, novels with something to say and a decent story to carry the message: The Shoes of the Fisherman by Morris L. West, Caravans by James A. Michener, and The Sand Pebbles by Richard McKenna. The relevance of each of these novels has diminished with age, but they still provide good entertainment.

Sometimes, good is better than best.

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