A Single Pebble, John Hersey, Alfred A Knopf, 1956, 181 pp
John Hersey is a good writer. He creates characters well, his stories move along with great energy and he makes a reader care deeply about what goes on. But sometimes, despite all those qualities, he just misses. This is one of those times.
A young American engineer has been sent to China in the 1920s to inspect the Yangtze River for possible locations on which to build a dam. He travels up that unpredictable and powerful river on a junk, through gorges, rapids and whirlpools. Surrounded by the junk's owner and his young wife, the cook and a large crew of trackers, who literally pull the junk, the young man tries to reconcile his American belief in progress with the legends and ways of a primitive culture. He becomes obsessed with understanding Old Pebble, the head tracker, who takes on the personality of almost a river god.
The story of the journey is gripping as the extreme adventure of prevailing over all the river's dangers is told. Hersey excels in writing the detail and realism of such a foreign location and people. Obviously the theme is east meets west, a theme which is shown by the events of the story contrasted with the young American's reactions.
Unfortunately we are rather hammered over the head by the engineer's attempt to come to grips with the contrasts, which feels like being lectured to instead of being allowed as a reader to draw one's own conclusions. Possibly such a tone was needed in the mid 1950s, but reading the book in the 21st century, knowing that the dam got built, puts it in a different light.
(A Single Pebble is out of print at this time, so is best found in a library or from a used book seller.)