The Sand Pebbles
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating

The Sand Pebbles

4.13 of 5 stars 4.13  ·  rating details  ·  721 ratings  ·  48 reviews
Set in China on the eve of revolution, this novel tells the story of a U.S. Navy gunboat and her dedicated crew of Sand Pebbles.
Paperback, 624 pages
Published May 1st 2001 by US Naval Institute Press (first published 1962)
more details... edit details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about The Sand Pebbles, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about The Sand Pebbles

Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 1,131)
filter  |  sort: default (?)  |  rating details
This is a story rich in historical relevance and in character development. It is centered on Jake Holman, Machinist's Mate 1st Class who is transferred to duty on a U.S. Navy gunboat during the early days of the violent Chinese Revolution in about 1926. He utters the novel's first words, "Hello, ship" as he sizes up the "San Pablo" at its dock. Holman is a very intelligent, industrious sailor who has a love of learning. He knows everything about the steam-powered engines in ships and wants to sp...more
Will Jeffrey
Among the memorable openings of great novels: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times",and "Call me Ishamle",add to them, "Hello ship." The Sand Pebbles is one of a few novels I reread every 5 years or so. Age and experience lent a new depth to my latest reading. Incidents from the plot I thought I had well remembered were different and therefore somewhat fresh. I saw the movie as a child before I read the novel so I have ready images of all the characters and action,and I knew how...more
An interesting book written by a navy veteran who was stationed in China in the 1930's. He knew men who experienced the time period covered in the novel and I suspect that Jake Holman is based on the author himself.

Richard McKenna was a career Navy man who (after retiring from the Navy) went on to earn a college degree before dying at a young age in 1964. A gifted writer he had the ability to transport the reader to the time and place. He makes the setting come to life.

Like Holman the novel ta...more
One of my favorite historical novels is The Leopard by a Sicilian Prince, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the last of his line. In 1957 he responded to a lifetime of loving books by taking up writing and telling a harsh, beautiful tale of self-destructive aristocrats in a self-destroying land. He died before knowing that The Leopard had a publisher, or that it would come to be regarded as Italy's finest novel and the best historical novel of this century.
In in similar fashion an American,Richard M...more
c1962. Extraordinary book. It is very easy to read and the pace is maintained all the way. Probably because it was written initially to be serialised in a bimonthly magazine - the Saturday Evening Post. "Four things were important on a ship: bunk, locker, place at the mess table and the engine room. The engine room was most important, because it as Jake Holman's sanctuary from the saluting and standing at attention and saying sir that went with life on the topside. Monkey-on-a-stick life, he cal...more
This is one of those great, big, impossible-to-put-down works of historical fiction that is guaranteed to send any modern-day historical fiction writer into the dark pits of dispair that they have been born into the wrong era. Why??? Because McKenna got to write a big book full of color and fascinating characters and IDEAS!! My God! the the ideas he was allowed to play with! He writes about steam engineering in a way that compares to Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" Th...more
Marc Baldwin
It seems like I give every book that I read four stars, and here's another one. I'd seen the movie (years ago) and was hoping that the book would provide a bit more background and character development. It didn't disappoint. There is so much more to the lead character, Jake Holman, then is touched on in the movie.

I also found the subject of "unequal treaties" in China in the 1920's to be an interesting parallel with the current situation in Afghanistan. They aren't the same thing, but some of t...more
Tim Petersik
This is one of my favorite books ever. But what is it about? On the surface, it's about American sailors in China trying to do their job without interfering with the developing communist revolution. But you can't avoid the tidal wave of history, and get involved they do. There's forbidden love and dangerous love. There's the struggle to do what's right. There's the problem understanding the culture where you're living. It all leads to an exciting and sad conclusion. The writing is crisp and it's...more
On the plus side, I was entranced by the narrative, perhaps because the author (McKenna) and protagonist (Holman) seem to be one in the same. The scope setting were fascinating, and I learned about a moment of history I had little knowledge of. I also enjoyed the authenticity of the ambiguity and messiness of war, revolution, bigotry, and a whole host of "isms. On the down side, the book left me momentarily depressed about the existential comparison of the protagonist's life and a scrap of waste...more
In the Navy, stationed in Japan, I was waiting for a seat on a standby Air Force flight when it was announced that flight operations were shutting down for 24 hours for runway maintenance. I had time to kill but there was no lounge, no restaurant, no news stand and no one else around. At least there was a room with a cot available to me. I hadn't brought any reading matter but the day's newspaper since I always slept in flight. Pacing the enormous waiting room to give my hindquarters a break I'd...more
C. James
This is one hell of a novel. I saw the film years ago, but never got around to reading the novel until a year ago at a writer friend's recommendation. Like his main character Jake Holman, McKenna served as a machinist's mate on a gunboat on the Yangtze River. From the first page this novel takes the reader into the world of the riverine navy. Holman is a loner whose closest relationship is with the engine of the San Pablo (The Sand Pebble). This engine becomes a virtual character as Holman learn...more
The Sand Pebbles is one of my favorite movies and I always wanted to read the book. It is the first novel by a man who actually served on a U.S. Gunboat in China during the 1930's. It is a riviting tale about the Chinese revolution, Imperialism, missionaries, duty, honor and sacrifice.
Set in China on the eve of revolution, the book tells the story of an old U.S. Navy gunboat, the San Pablo, and her dedicated crew of "Sand Pebbles" on patrol in the far reaches of the Yangtze River to show the flag and protect American missionaries and businessmen from bandits. The plot revolves around a newcomer to the boat, machinist's mate Jake Holman, a maverick and loner who alters the lives of the crew and the people they have come to save. A faithful engine-room coolie and a pretty young...more
The backdrop is China in the 1920's shaking off Western and Christian imperialism, from a disgruntled sailor's point of view.

As interesting as that may sound, it gets boring. No gripping plot; more a series of episodes and side stories. The hovering villain is a faceless Chinese horde. The love story won't leave anybody needing to take a cold shower.

That said, it could appeal to a young adult male audience. Lots of fist fight- type action, comic book like characters (bullies, backstabbers),...more
The story of a man, of a war, of a people, of a time I knew little about, and sometimes a love story, although not the usual love story. It's a hard story, and it left me at times hoping for the good while the bad was happening all around.

I learned about the beginning of the revolution in China and America's presence there. I learned about American missionaries and what their role might have been in American public opinion and political lobbying at the time. I learned something about the Americ...more
This was a slow read for me, but more because of all the things going on in my life rather than the book lacking in draw. I liked the story, I liked the characters and I liked the overall tone of the book.

I've enjoyed books set in Asia ever since I read Clavell's "Tai Pan", so I started this book with an open mind and expecting good things. I wasn't disappointed. However, I didn find that the writing style was frustrating at times; disjointed and jaunting at times, I needed to slow down and figu...more
The story is set in China in the 1920s; feudal warlords squabble over their respective holdings while the Treaty Powers' (United States, England, Japan) ships patrol the coastal and inland China waterways protecting their respective countries' commercial concessions and resident citizens against the feckless and ineffective local soldiers. The San Pablo is an obsolete American gunboat assigned to monitor a tributary of the Yangtze in upper Hunan province. Its sailors are nicknamed the Sand Pebb...more
Written in 1962, this book relates the "adventures" of Jake Holman, an enlisted engineer on the USS San Pablo, an American gunboat in rural China during the nationalist tumult there during the mid-1920s. The ship was taken over by the US from the Spanish during the Spanish-American War, and is now rather decrepit. The workings of the ship have largely been taken over by native coolies, and part of the plot revolves around the relationship between the non-conformist Holman and his shipmates. The...more
I REALLY loved this book, one of the best I've read in a long time. I'd place it on a par with THE FAR PAVILIONS as one of my favorite all time books.

THE SAND PEBBLES (the name was an affectionate nickname for the crew of the SAN PABLO) is story about the people, places and troubled time of China in the 1920s. The Chinese revolution (Nationalists rising) was underway and the rules were changing. The main character is Jake Holman, a US Navy mechanic who is new on board the SAN PABLO.

Jake likes t...more
Doug Sacks
This was a really great book. For me it belongs up there with Shogun and Cold Mountain. A man's book in the best sense. I loved the main character and his questioning of so many things: authority, race, politics, commitment, love, his place in the world and more. The book was also a great window on a small chapter of a forgotten period in both Chinese and American history. The author lovingly writes in detail about the inner workings of the steam ship to the point where many people today wouldn'...more
Jayaram Kowta
This is such a lovely book but I dont know why I loved it. Took me a month to read it in bits and pieces but I am totally in love with Po Han and Holman and the crew.

Richard Wise
Against a background of political upheaval and change, this remarkable work that explores the dynamic of a small homogeneous community disrupted by a deviant personality determined to play the game his way.
A wonderful book on so many levels. Adventurous, romantic, historical, and relevant. American military in a country that mostly does not want them, but there to keep the peace and promote American interests. It so well tells the story of the American sailors caught up in this. Sometimes the US sailors seem like villains, but you also feel for them as they are caught in a situation out of which it would be hard to break out. Maybe a bit too much description of the engines, and it did seem to go o...more
Jim Vuksic
The story takes place at a dramatic turning point in China's long history. Armed groups revolt against the imperial dynasty to establish a republic.

World War I had ended only eight years prevously and World Wart II was still fifteen years away. The American military presence in China is extremely weak.
A small, antiquated naval gunboat, with its crew grown lazy and spoiled from living a very non-military lifestyle, is charged with evacuating American citizens caught in the middle of China's turm...more
David Jordan
A fascinating novel about colonial China in the early 1900s and an American sailor stationed there, trying to adapt to the local customs and lifestyles. Made into a semi-bad movie starring Steve McQueen as the sailor, in which the filmmakers stupidly tried to convert the story into an anti-Vietnam War allegory. A fine professor of Asian history recommended this book as the best historical fiction ever written about 20th Century China before Mao.
Ellis L.
Dec 08, 2012 Ellis L. added it
Shelves: literature
One of the best books I've read. Period. Every character is someone I wanted to know better. Every scene is set in vivid detail. The plot itself is Shakespearean tragedy. I cannot recommend this book too highly. If you like stories about the military, read this. If you like stories about exotic places, read this. If you like stories about brave heroes, read this. If you like stories about flawed heroes, read this.

Read this.
I've seen the movie some time ago and then picked up the book for 20¢. I'd say its the best 20¢ I've spent on a book with lots of descriptions of a gunboat patrol with a unforgettable cast like you're part of the crew. This is the book that started me back into the pleasures of reading and opened my mind to different genre's that are out there that I can enjoy which, years ago I couldn't find many books that I could read.
Ray Grasshoff
Very good, entertaining, and well-written novel about sailors on a small American gunboat relegated to Chinese rivers in the 1920s, and their struggle to cope with larger events around them. A clash of cultures comes alive on many levels throughout the story. And as often the case, the book is considerably better than the movie. Hard to believe this is a first novel.
Rebecca Huston
A terrific book about an American patrol ship on the Yangtze river in China in the 1930's. One of the few books that really grasped the differences between the West and the East. Made into a terrific film.

For a look at the longer review, please go here:
carl  theaker

As as kid I saw this book of my Dad's for years. It's size
inhibited me for a while from reading it, but the movie
inspired me and glad it did as quite a good read.

Insights into the Chinese divisions, noodle eaters in the
north, rice eaters in the south, and by time your
finished, you should be able to operate a ship's

« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 37 38 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »
  • Run Silent, Run Deep (Cassell Military Paperbacks)
  • The Cruel Sea (Classics of War)
  • On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace
  • The Good Shepherd
  • Shackleton's Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer
  • The Bridges at Toko-ri
  • The Elephant and the Dragon: The Rise of India and China and What It Means for All of Us
  • Das Boot: The Boat
  • The World of Suzie Wong
  • Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus
  • PT 109
  • Iron Coffins: A Personal Account of the German U-boat Battles of World War II
  • The Art of the Long View
  • The Ocean World (Abradale)
  • Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy
  • Empires of Sand
  • The Mutiny on the Bounty Trilogy
  • 1812: The Navy's War
RICHARD MCKENNA was born and raised in the small desert town of Mountain Home, Idaho. In 1931, at the age of eighteen, he enlisted in the United States Navy and served for ten years in Asia. Two of those years were on a Yangtze River gunboat. During this time he heard many firsthand accounts of the 1925-1927 Chinese Revolution which he put to use in The Sand Pebbles.

Mr. McKenna, a machinist's mate...more
More about Richard McKenna...
Casey Agonistes and Other Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories The Left-Handed Monkey Wrench: Stories and Essays The Secret Place New Eyes for Old: Nonfiction Writings New Management

Share This Book