Literary theorist Georg Lukacs complains in his seminal work, The Historical Novel, that the works of imaginative literature too often use history as a mere backdrop, a way for an author to decorate the story and characters. Lukas singles out Sir Walter Scott, English author of such works as Ivanhoe and the Waverly novels, as a notable exception. According to Lukas, Scott's novels document, with painstaking verisimilitude, the character of the historical period in which the action is taking place, and, as a result, treat history as more than just mere scenery.
One feels that Lukacs might make a similar exception for Richard McKenna, whose award-winning 1962 novel, The Sand Pebbles, has often been compared to Scott's classic novels. Set aboard an American gunship patrolling the Yangtze river on the eve of revolution in China, The Sand Pebbles is rich in detail drawn from McKenna's meticulous research as well as his firsthand experiences of China as a member of the U.S. Navy. As a spirit of nationalism inspired by Chiang Kai-shek's leadership begins to sweep through China, the river gunship San Pablo is ordered to patrol the region and protect U.S. citizens. The crew of the ship is soon drawn into an international conflict as the Chinese Nationalists begin trying to expel the "foreign devils" from their shores. The conflict will not only illustrate the divide between east and west but also provoke a divide among the members of the crew itself.
What The Sand Pebbles also has in common with the truly great historical novels of the past is that its wealth of regional and historical detail is never allowed to overwhelm the story or the characters. The protagonist of McKenna's novel is Jake Holman, a machinist aboard the San Pablo who has joined the Navy in order to avoid jail time. Fiercely independent, Jake remains something of a loner aboard the San Pablo, uncomfortable with Naval protocol and discipline. It is his rebellious spirit that animates much of McKenna's novel. His independent-mindedness chafes against military hierarchy, and helps ensure that he does not share his shipmates' disdain for the Chinese. Instead, he is fascinated with the culture and the people that surround him and develops emotional bonds that will prove difficult to manage when circumstances turn tumultuous and more dire.
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June 30, 2010
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Excerpt from The Sand Pebbles by Richard McKenna
Chapter 1 "Hello, ship," Jake Holman said under his breath. The ship was asleep and did not hear him. He lowered his big canvas thirty-year bag to the ground and stood there in the moon shadow of a brick wall and had his long first look at her. She looked stubby and blocky and topheavy down there at the edge of the black, rolling river, and she was all moon-white except for her slender black smokestack that rose very high, high as her two masts. Four guy wires slanted down from the stack like streamers from a maypole. She had a stubby, shielded gun on her open bow and a doubled, man-high hand steering wheel on her open bow and a doubled, man-high hand steering wheel on her open fantail aft, but in between she looked more like a house than a ship. Her square, curtained windows and screened doors opened on a galleried main deck like a long, narrow veranda and on a pipe-railed boat deck under taut white awnings. It was after midnight and they were asleep down there, all but the watch. In a few minutes he'd go aboard and find a bunk and wake up with them in the morning like a strange bird in their nest. Jake Holman knew he was a strange bird and he was used to going aboard new ships. By the time they realized they were in a struggle Jake Holman would already have made for himself the place he wanted on their ship and they could never dislodge him. Or wish to. It was going to be the same on the U.S.S. San Pablo. He did not know why he was reluctant to go right aboard. This one might be a pretty strange nest, too, he thought. Since he had gotten his orders a month ago in Manila he had not been able to find anyone who had ever seen the ship or who had even been shipmates with an ex-San Pablo sailor. Nobody knew any more about her than Holman already knew himself, after six years on the China Station, and that was more legend than fact. She was one of the ancient gunboats captured from Spain and sent to form the Yangtze Patrol during the Boxer Rebellion, in the year Jake Holman was born. They were all relics now, in June of 1925, and a flotilla of modern gunboats was building in Shanghai to replace them. The others sometimes appeared in shanghai, but the San Pablo never came further downriver than Hankow. They said she was least and ugliest of Comyang's gunboats and he was ashamed to show the flag on the likes of her down around the glitter of Shanghai. She did not even operate on the Yangtze, but on some nameless tributaries from the south, and on a big lake that was said to expand and contract mysteriously and to have mermaids in it. From the legends, the San Pablo spent half her time high and dry on sand bars in the nameless rivers with the crew ashore cultivating gardens and slaughtering their own beef and mining their own coal, while the natives took pot shots at them. Holman did not believe the legends, but he thought she was still a funny-looking ship. A lighted quarterdeck was inset amidships on the main deck with a short gangplank leading up from the pontoon through a gap in the solid steel bulwark. Two men stood on watch there beside a pulpitlike log desk, one in regulation undress whites and the other in the white shorts and short-sleeved sport shirt that was summer uniform for Yangtze Patrol sailors. At least two more in shorts were patrolling with rifles on the shadowy boat deck. That was a lot of men for the topside watch on a quiet midnight, Holman thought. He was a sandy-haired, squarely built, powerful man in dress whites and he stood there in the moon shadow thinking and nuzzling his chin with a fat brown envelope. The envelope held his records and pay accounts and it was wound with red tape sealed in four places with blobs of red wax so that Jake Holman could not examine or tamper with the Navy's little paper image of himself. Paper Jake Holman, he sometimes called it in his thoughts. When he turned Paper Jake in down on that quarterdeck, he would be aboard officially on paper. He would be in the thick of it again. Well, go on down, he told himself, but he did not go. He sniffed the cool, damp breeze off the river and listened to the lapping, rustling murmur of the moving water and he heard the steady plashing sound of a cooling water overboard discharge. He could not see it along the ship's steel side. Must be on the port side, he thought. It's late, he thought, and the first few days are always rough ones. Go aboard, you stupid bastard, and get some sleep. He picked up the thirty-year bag and started down the plank walkway to the flat steel pontoon. "Here I come, ship," he said softly.