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Thread: To the White Sea by James Dickey

  1. #1
    running amok Sancho's Avatar
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    To the White Sea by James Dickey

    James Dickey, To the White Sea, copywrite 1993, Random House Inc.

    To the White Sea is a tale of war and survival and ostensibly of escape and evasion. It is a story that deals with questions of human-reason versus animal-instinct and examines the human relationship to the natural world. James Dickey explores some of the more basic instincts and emotions that comprise the human psyche and which transcend human civilization and culture. His vehicle in this endeavor is the main protagonist of the novel, an Army Air Corps B-29 Tail-Gunner, posted to the Pacific Theater during World War Two.

    James Dickey can write with authority on this subject. He served as a radar operator and navigator in the Army Air Corp’s 418th Night Fighter Squadron. He flew 39 combat missions in the Pacific Theater of World War Two. His dates are February 2, 1923 – January 19, 1997. He was a poet, novelist, essayist, critic and teacher. His best known work is the 1970 novel, Deliverance. He grew up in Atlanta, Georgia and at the time of his death he was the Poet-in-Residence at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.

    To the White Sea is a story narrated by Sergeant Muldrow, a B-29 tail gunner, and therefore all events are filtered through his lens. The novel begins in a squadron briefing room several days prior to the American Fire-Bombing of Tokyo (not one of our finest hours as a nation) March 8, 1945. The Wing Commander is giving a Curtis Lemay style briefing to several squadrons of airmen regarding what he has in-store for “the little yellow man and his folks:”

    "Fire. We’re going to put him in it. We’re going to put fire around him, all around him. We’re going to put it over him and underneath him. We’re going to bring it down on him and to him. We’re going to put it in his eyes and up his a**hole, in his wife’s tw*t, and in his baby’s diaper… We’re going to put it in his dreams."

    Later that night Muldrow is flying a “routine” bombing mission against targets on Honshu, the main island of Japan, when predictably his aircraft is shot down. He manages to bail out safely and finds himself on the ground in a shipyard in the middle of Tokyo.

    Armed with a survival kit and the knowledge that the Tokyo fire bombing raids are close at hand, Muldrow holes up in a sewer pipe, “nearly dying of sh*t gas,” and waits for the firestorm. He reasons correctly that the raid will create such panic and confusion that it will be his only chance to escape the city. James Dickey then gives us the best description I’ve yet read of what it must have been like to be in the city of Tokyo (then a city of mostly wood and paper) while over three million pounds of incendiary and white phosphorus bombs were falling and exploding.

    Muldrow does, of course, escape the city (otherwise it would be a short story rather than a novel) and that is where his odyssey begins. He knows that rescue is not an option and therefore his personal survival depends entirely on his escape and evasion skills. His plan is to make it to the White Sea, a euphemism for the far and icy north. He believes if he can make it to Hokkaido, the sparsely populated northern island of Japan, he will be able to survive indefinitely. That will require him to travel the length of Honshu as a lone soldier in a hostile country of people with whom he shares no language or likeness in personal appearance and then cross the frigid body of water between Honshu and Hokkaido.

    Sergeant Muldrow is one of the more interesting characters of modern fiction. He was raised in almost total isolation in a cabin on the north face of the Brooks Range in the territory of Alaska. He was raised by his father who had brought him there from the lower forty-eight for reasons that were left ambiguous. His father may have been running from the law or from a bad marriage; it’s just not clear. (As an aside, still today there are many people who chose to live in Alaska – because they can’t live anywhere else.) Muldrow had been nominally educated by his father but it seems most of his education was derived from the natural world. He grew up hunting, fishing, trapping and tracking. He could read animal sign and he could read the seasons and the stars. He was a good observer of natural phenomena. He had particular admiration for efficiency and economy of movement of the fisher marten while attacking prey. He also admired animals such as the snowshoe hare and the ptarmigan for their ability to blend in with their surroundings - even to the point of invisibility. He evokes and draws strength from these and other northern animals as he makes his way towards the White Sea, towards Hokkaido.

    On his journey, Muldrow runs into a number of situations. He hops a logging train, comes across a monastery of Zen Buddhists, has an encounter with an old Samurai Warrior, drives a truck in a Japanese Army convoy, stays a few days in the village of the "bear people," and all the while he is making his way north. He is also getting crazier and crazier. Or so I initially thought. As I was traveling along with Sergeant Muldrow, I began to think that it was an interesting technique of the author to tell a story, in the first person, from the perspective of a man who is going totally insane.

    However, after completing the novel and setting it aside and thinking about it for several weeks, I have revised that thought. Muldrow, like Odysseus, was on a journey home: Odysseus to Ithaca and Muldrow to the icy north. But Muldrow’s journey was not just to the White Sea. His journey was to the origin of the species. He was not going crazier and crazier; he was traveling backwards down the evolutionary chain. The final sentences of the book were reminiscent of the following line from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Me” in the “Leaves of Grass” collection: “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, / If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.” Here’s Sergeant Muldrow: “You will be able to hear me just like you’re hearing me now. Everywhere in it, for the first time and the last, as soon as I close my eyes.” To me, this line suggests that Muldrow had reached the “point” of origin and that point was infinite.



    So, there you go. As you-all may have guessed, I think that it was a worthwhile read. In my opinion, the critics mostly missed the point. Most reviewers tried to compare To the White Sea to Dickey’s earlier novel Deliverance. This is a poor comparison. They are totally different books that explore totally different ideas and they just happen to have been written by the same guy. The reviewer for The New York Times thought that when Muldrow killed, without emotion or human feeling – like an animal, that it detracted from the book. And with that, I’ll stop right here. (The Flight Attendants are telling me turn off my computer anyway.)
    Last edited by Sancho; 07-31-2008 at 01:37 PM. Reason: Just correcting some crappy grammar
    Some people call me Maurice
    'Cos I speak of the pompatus of love

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