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The Sand Pebbles, Richard McKenna, Harper & Row, 1962, 597 pp
This very long but extremely interesting novel was the #9 bestseller in 1963. I have completed the bestseller portion of that year's list. Now I am on to the Award winners of the year, of which there are six.
The Sand Pebbles are a nickname for the crew of the San Pablo, an old US Navy gunboat whose job is to patrol the Yangtze River, show the US flag, and protect American missionaries and businessmen. The story covers the years 1925 to 1927. Chiang Kai Shek was in those years a fairly young Chinese communist fomenting a revolution to do away with the power of the ruling dynasty, the war lords, and the unequal treaties that foreign businesses benefited from in China.
Jake Holman, a machinist, as the central character, is a maverick and loner who loves machines more than people. He ended up in the Navy as an escape from incarceration in his poverty-stricken small hometown. He hates authority figures and has no use for military regulations and procedures but he excels at keeping the San Pablo's steam engines running.
This is a big sprawling book but McKenna does an excellent job of melding story lines, building characters both American and Chinese, and keeping the excitement and tension high. As the political scene heats up, the San Pablo and its crew face danger, ridicule and even heartbreak. Jake grows into a man who does find many kinds of people he can relate to and possibly a way to deal with life.
According to the Introduction, the research is accurate. I was glad I read that first because I knew very little about that period of Chinese history. Thanks to the novel and a bit of internet study, I now know much more. My husband says he remembers seeing the novel on his mother's bookshelves when he was a kid. A movie starring Steve McQueen as Jake Holman came out in 1966.
Sailors, whores, coolies, communists, missionaries, warlords and what a plot! One of the best of the 1963 bestsellers.
Some of my blog followers have inquired about these bestseller lists I am reading, so for you, here is the list from 1963. You can find reviews of them all here on my blog.
1. The Shoes of the Fisherman, Morris L West
2. The Group, Mary McCarthy
3. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, and Seymour, J D Salinger
4. Caravans, James A Michener
5. Elizabeth Appleton, John O’Hara
6. Grandmother and the Priests, Taylor Caldwell
7. City of Night, John Rechy
8. The Glass-Blowers, Daphne du Maurier
9. The Sand Pebbles, Richard McKenna10. The Battle of the Villa Fiorita, Rumer Godden