A two-handed review

Our roving contributing editor, Paul O’Connor, has interrupted his travels to review a novel set during World War II. Since his travels took him to Oregon when the author was there, he also was able to hear Jeff Shaara discuss his writing.

By Paul T. O’Connor

THE FINAL STORM. By Jeff Shaara. Ballantine Books. 446 pages. $28, hardcover.

It takes two hands to review a Jeff Shaara novel: one to chronicle his writing weaknesses, the other to explain why a reader so critical just raced through his book, hardly able to put it down.

On one hand, Shaara writes weakly. His prose clunks along, lacking all grace; his dialogue sounds written, not spoken; his fictional or composite characters are predictable and undeveloped, his historical figures superficial. And his history does not venture beyond the obvious.

But on the other hand, The Final Storm, Shaara’s unexpected fourth book in his World War II trilogy, is a compelling story about an immensely important, but often overlooked, battle, the late spring 1945 campaign for Okinawa.

Those who hear Shaara speak will understand my ambivalence about his books. In a presentation at Powell’s Books in Beaverton, Ore., recently, he talked about his writing and research.

His goal in writing, he told an audience of about 50, “is all about telling a good story.”

And that is what Shaara does, not as well as other historical novelists but simply and well. His books about World War II are not Saving Private Ryan or Das Boot. They are the Sands of Iwo Jima or Battle of Britain. And, while I consider Ryan one of my favorite movies, I’ll watch Sands when it’s on TV, too.

Shaara isn’t writing for academic historians, not even for history buffs who have studied WW II, the American Revolution or the Civil War. Such readers he picks up as extras.

The Shaara audience is the male equivalent of the romance novel market. Shaara’s stories are correctly set in their period and place, but they exhibit no deep understanding of them. His The Steel Wave, set in the Normandy invasion, was painfully simplistic.

How could this be?

He revealed the answer in Beaverton. Speaking of what he found while researching these battles, he said repeatedly, “Most people don’t know that,” or “I didn’t know that.”

What didn’t he know until he started researching The Final Storm?

That Harry Truman only learned that the United States had developed an atomic bomb after he became president in 1945, that U.S. forces fought in North Africa before they invaded continental Europe, that the Soviet Union entered the war against Japan in the last few days of the Pacific war.

Egads, Jeff, that stuff was on my eighth grade history exam, and it was the easy part.

Shaara’s writing schedule also explains a lot. He’s churning books out pretty quickly, three due in the next three years, all on the western theater of the Civil War. Such deadlines do not lend time for graceful writing, in-depth character development or anything approaching academic-level research.

But give him his due, on the other hand. The Final Storm is a good read. (And he’s an entertaining and likable speaker. Go see him if you can.)

Okinawa is overshadowed by Iwo Jima even though it was a much larger, longer and costlier battle. So, it’s an important topic.

As usual, Shaara tells his story from all sides, from those of an American GI, an American admiral and the Japanese commanders on the island. The most interesting parts related to the Japanese, Shaara having used the memoir of one Japanese commander, one of the few Japanese survivors of the battle, in his research.

A private, Clay Adams, carries most of the story, and Shaara told us that Adams was real, although, to carry the story forward, he attached to Adams experiences from other real characters. Adams’ real-life brother formed the basis for the character Jesse Adams in Shaara’s final book on the European theater, No Less Than Victory.

Shaara also throws in a few American officers and then, in the late pages, after he’s finished with Okinawa, turns the book toward the decision to drop the atom bomb on Japan.

The A-bomb afterthought is nothing less than odd. It introduces all new characters, so there’s no coherence. It’s like the next chapter in a history book.

Historical fiction can teach us a lot about history, and it is often an entertaining way to educate ourselves. We can say that about Shaara’s books, even with all of their shortcomings.

  • Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.
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