Georgetown professor, NPR commentator, and first-novelist Callanan expertly fictionalizes one of WWII’s least-known stories.
The phenomenon of Japanese balloon bombs carrying both explosives and lethal germs to Alaska and the northwestern US is disclosed to, and monitored by, narrator Louis Belk, a young Army Air Corps sergeant trained as a bomb disposal specialist. In a dual narrative, we follow Louis’s experiences at his base in Anchorage and environs and also those a half-century later, when he spends his final days as a Catholic priest in the Alaskan wilderness at the deathbed of Yup’ik Eskimo Ronnie, a self-destructive alcoholic and professed shaman. Haunting motifs drawn from Yup’ik legend emerge in the moribund Ronnie’s tall tales, which loom in the reader’s awareness as parallels to the younger Louis’s guilt when a bomb he’s too inexperienced to defuse kills several comrades. Even more compromising emotions are churned up by his relationships with two other major characters: one is Lily, a beautiful half-breed prostitute and nominal “palm reader” who seems unusually attuned to the “spirit world” later evoked by the dying Ronnie; the other is her lover (and Louis’s superior officer), Captain Gurley, a hard-bitten, sardonic, wounded veteran who bullies and taunts his young subordinate into assisting his quest to persuade the Army that “the Japs . . . have reached North America.” Callanan’s complex plot tightens neatly when Gurley learns of Lily’s intimacy with Saburo, a Japanese fisherman (and perhaps spy) who’d disappeared into an uncharted forest—and leads Louis and Lily on an expedition that becomes a voyage of bitter discovery. In a climactic deathbed scene, Callanan brilliantly connects the fate of a boy sent across the ocean in a balloon with the shaman’s tale of a ceaselessly crying child—and with the last-revealed of Lily’s secrets.
A haunting story that will remind many of Ondaatje’s The English Patient—and that merits the comparison.