An unusual novel in that Payton takes us to a theater of war not normally visited—the Japanese-occupied Aleutian Islands in 1943.
John Easley is deeply involved in the war but ironically not as a soldier—he’s a journalist. On a quest for the truth about what’s going on in this remote Alaskan territory, he is shot down and forced into survival mode on the island of Attu. The only other survivor of the crash is Airman 1st Class Karl Bitburg, a Texan running away from an impossible home life. For a while, the two survive on mussels and live in a cave, hidden from the 2,000 Japanese in their immediate area. Meanwhile, John’s wife, Helen, is consumed with worry about her missing husband and decides to take desperate measures to learn of his fate. An amateur dancer and performer, she gets a job with the United Services Organization (thanks in part to a sympathetic band leader) and wangles a trip to entertain the troops in Alaska. She’s able to find out small bits of information—for example, that John passed himself off as a Canadian soldier using the uniform of his younger brother, Warren, recently deceased in action around the English Channel. Further complications on the homefront involve Helen’s father, Joe Connelly, whose recent stroke has left him somewhat incapacitated. Torn between caring for her father and looking for her husband, Helen is eased somewhat by Joe’s insistence that she follow her heart and seek out John. Eventually, husband and wife reunite, but Payton keeps this reunion poignantly brief.
Through a narrative strategy that alternates chapters between John’s plight and Helen’s search, Payton effectively gives the reader two visions—and two versions—of a neglected aspect of World War II.