The Eagle’s Claw, by Jeff Shaara*****

Shaara is one of my favorite authors, and so I was delighted when I received an invitation to read and review. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine; this book is for sale now.

Like everyone else, I bring my own experiences and biases to this novel, and this one is a potential hot potato. I am married to a Japanese citizen, and my in-laws still reside in Japan. The implicit, and at times overt racism that many authors bring to this topic—the Pacific theater of World War II, between the U.S. and Japan—ruins my mood for days, and consequently, I won’t even go near most nonfiction or historical fiction that focuses on this aspect of American history. When Shaara published To Wake the Giant, I signed on to read and review with great trepidation; I was afraid that I would not only hate the book, but emerge from it unhappy enough to abandon the author entirely. Imagine my delight when I found the opposite was true.

Shaara’s signature format is to portray the events that unfold through the eyes of key participants, delivering staggered narratives that include admirals and pilots on both sides as well as a code breaker on the American side. Shaara sticks to the truth, and by now I know this, so I’m not distracted by the need to fact check information that is new to me. His research and attention to detail is matchless, and his capacity to develop characters on the page makes me feel I would know these men if I ran into them on the street. My review copy, sadly, did not have the maps added, merely noting on what pages they would later be added; however, I once more defer to this author’s track record. I would bet my last dollar that the maps are also excellent.

One aspect that is usually a deal breaker for me is the frequent use of the period’s predominant racist slur, when Americans mention the Japanese. There are three syllables in this word, and they should be used. For those that plead that the one syllable word is authentic to the time and place, I would invite them to imagine a similar tale featuring a hypothetical African enemy during the same time period. What would be the expected, authentic term by which Caucasian Americans would refer to such enemy combatants, and to the government from which they hail? For the obtuse, I’ll tell you, it would be the N word. So would you just go ahead and drop it in there for the sake of accuracy, or would you use greater sensitivity and explain the alteration in an author’s note? You’d do the latter. Of course you would. In fact, likely it would be the only way your novel would see the light of day, and rightly so.

But here as well, Shaara gets a pass from this reviewer despite his use of the term I abhor, and the reason is his candor, addressing the racism of the time period right up front. Though you might think it obvious, I have never seen a successful author of World War II historical fiction do this, and he is absolutely clear about it. In fact, I began highlighting the introduction—don’t skip it! And when it was done, I found I had highlighted nearly all of it.

Whether you are drawn to this book from a love of history and the desire to learn a few things painlessly, or for the escapist entertainment that great novels provide, you can’t go wrong here. This is a damn fine book. I highly recommend it to everyone.

Wings in the Dark, by Michael Murphy ***-****

wingsinthedarkMichael Murphy’s Jake and Laura series is both engaging and interesting, the best blend of historical fiction and detective fiction I’ve seen in a long time. Until I got halfway through, it was headed for the land of five stars, and I am not sure how objectively I’ve been able to review it since that point. But I went with my gut, and ultimately, when it comes to fiction, that’s what every reader uses to judge a book. Thank you to Random House, Net Galley, and the author for permitting me a sneak peek; this title will be available to the public August 31.

Jake Donovan, our intrepid detective-turned-novelist, is working on his latest Blackie Doyle novel, but he takes a break from work to honeymoon with his bride, the famous actress Laura Wilson. He has sworn off detective work at her insistence, and has decided he likes being a novelist better, anyway. Fate intervenes, however, when Laura’s good friend, Amelia Earhart, finds a man dead near her plane.

It’s shaping up to be a really great story. At this point, I am noticing the level of historical detail, and thinking of this as potentially great classroom material. A number of public schools teach language arts and history in a block simply titled “Literacy”, and since so many young folks have reading skills that aren’t up to snuff, sometimes the best way to teach history is by partnering it with historical fiction. The book is clean enough that no one is going to race to the nearest school board meeting to complain; no explicit sex. The possibility is exciting, for teenagers and perhaps also for the author and publisher. There are some wonderful, positive depictions of women, who were active in non-traditional roles during this time period. What a great book for teens as well as adults!

It was then that I ran into the “J” word. Here, once I got past the slapped-out-of-nowhere feeling that racist terms generally evoke, I asked myself whether the historical circumstances of the novel merited the inclusion of this term in place of the correct term, “Japanese”. I also reminded myself that the rest of the book might be free of the term, and I could just push past it, as sometimes one must, and return to an appreciation of the story’s period flavor and nicely woven plot.

The problem here is that the word kept popping up in nonessential places, as if it were a bit of window dressing, and it was accompanied by some rather nasty language about that group. And again, it was a word used commonly during the time period by Caucasians and some others. For that matter, so was a lot of racially and ethnically derogatory language; even in the early 1960’s, I can recall hearing casual conversations peppered with anti-Black, anti-Jew, anti-Italian terms when nobody was angry; it was just the way some white folks talked without even thinking. But most writers today would not choose to evoke that part of history in their writing. The harm outweighs the usefulness. In Wings in the Dark, the only place that it might have been contextually useful is when General Patton enters and leaves again, spewing his trademark xenophobic profanity behind him. But neither Patton nor his profanity is really key to the story line, either.

I think about what I like to read; here on the west coast of the USA, most cities have a fairly hefty number of Asians and Pacific Islanders, and this was true of the district in which I taught history and literature until my recent retirement. I could never put this in their hands. What a terrible thing to do to them. And it’s a shame, because they would have enjoyed reading about Amelia Earhart. In fact, there is a magnet school dedicated to aviation and partnered with Boeing. Less the anti-Japanese slurs, they might have made great use of this book; with it, I could see students looking down and away; I could see parents coming to school or to board meetings looking for an explanation.

Apart from the term—which hit me harder than it will most Caucasian readers—this is a strong piece of fiction. The pacing, dialogue, and character development are all strong. There are red herrings that I nibbled on and was fooled by, and the ending is about right; at least I think it is. Again, I struggled with objectivity. But I think without the four places that hit my ouch-button, I would have enjoyed the second half of this novel as thoroughly as I enjoyed the first half.