A touching debut novel that tells the many stories of one of history’s great rescues.
Capt. Leonard LaRue steers his unremarkable merchant ship Meredith Victory out of the mothballs to move war materiel into North Korea and, more dramatically, brings desperate civilians out. Marine private Jack Stiles leaves West Texas and a conflicted family to serve his country in the depths of the Chinese counterattack that turned the Korean War. Young widow Jang Tae-bok feeds her family on rice and scraps as the war brutally unravels her family’s quiet valley. Watts imagines how these and other stories intertwine as soldiers, civilians and sailors approach the Hungnam port in a frozen, frantic race. Deeply religious Capt. LaRue finds grace in his ship’s unexpected mission; conflicted Pvt. Stiles finds it around the bloody Battle of Chosin Reservoir. He softens as he’s forced to see Korea and its people both at the front line and, unexpectedly, in their homes. Watts’ story moves well, sometimes in spite of his characters’ uneven dialogue. The refugees themselves, perhaps the story’s most compelling figures, go mostly nameless, flowing among the main characters and surging toward the Meredith Victory, their final hope to leave ahead of the advancing Communists: “They added together little threads of information, stitched together rumors and suppositions, and wove them all into the fabric of belief and hope. They clung to their bundles….” Both a novel of a cold, relentless place and an unlikely love story, it honors the dead and celebrates the lucky living.
Earnest in its telling, this story of the Hungnam evacuation asks readers to measure both the terror and the humanity of America’s forgotten war.