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The Sand Pebbles by Richard McKenna
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's review
Oct 20, 2010

it was amazing
Read in July, 2008

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 spend his career deep in the pits of a ship's engine room, where he can be in charge of his own little part of the Navy and not be bothered by the military's love of ceremony and spit-and-polish. This is one reason he is happy to move from the hubub of life in the Navy's large Pacific fleet to the slow life of summer cruises up and down the Yangtze River in a small, slow ship.

Events conspire to pierce Holman's bubble. He finds that the small command of the "San Pablo", nicknamed the "Sand Pebble" by its crew, is still subject to Navy protocol because its captain, Lt. Collins, is a by-the-book commander who insists on daily morning formations in dress whites; Holman chafes at spending time standing at attention while his engine room demands his attention. Worse, the regular Navy guys have virtually nothing to do except drill at battle stations according to the captain's whim. All of the boat's jobs have been taken over by coolies. They cook the food, cut hair, and swab the decks. Even the engine room is run by Chinese who run the spotless machinery according to learned imitation. Holman is appalled to see sailors living in this extravagance while the important mechanical tasks are run without strict supervision. This is exasperated by the realization that foreign nationals have permanent quarters on a U.S. Navy ship which could expect to find itself in battle with Chinese brigands on the river.

Richard McKenna writes about a world he is intimately familiar with. He was a top student in high school in Idaho where, as a young man, he kept the local library busy getting new books to keep ahead of his ravenous reading appetite. He joined the Navy to help support his family when the Great Depression cut his college plans short. He served a hitch on a Navy gunboat on the Yangtze Patrol in the 1930's, where he heard many first-hand accounts from old salts who had been on gunboats during the 1920's. He continued reading and taking correspondence courses available to sailors while becoming a machinist mate; he would serve for over twenty years, including World War II and Korea. Entering the University of North Carolina in 1953 at age 40, he excelled as a student while studying literature and science; he graduated Phi Beta Kappa. A short story he wrote, "King's Horsemen", about life on a Yangtze gunboat, became the foundation for "The Sand Pebbles", complete with the author's reverential respect for the workings of ships' engine rooms.

Reviewer's note: The historical period covered by "The Sand Pebbles" occurs during the 1925-1927 Chinese Revolution. Unrest had existed in China for several generations against the foreign governments which muscled into China in the nineteenth century to help themselves to the country's wealth while holding their behavior accountable to themselves. These imperialist interests represented Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the United States (am I missing anybody?) They operated out of treaty ports where they controlled the trade. Most used river boats, or gunboats, to patrol the major waterways to protect passenger and cargo commerce from warlords and bandits. The U.S. Navy relied heavily on three or four (depending on who you consult) Spanish-built wood vessels seized in the Phillippines during the Spanish-American war. The San Pablo is allegedly modeled after one, the "Villabobos." By the 1920's, these ships were antiques. They were lightly armed, with a single low-caliber deck gun as the sole permanent firepower, augmented by machine guns and other small arms wielded by the crew. Their aging engines were relatively weak, preventing the ships from sailing into the full length of the Yangtze. In the late 20's, after the events of this book, the Navy commissioned six new gunboats which replaced these relics. One of them, the "Luzon", would be the one Richard McKenna served on from 1939 until the beginning of World War II.

McKenna places Holman on a gunboat when things were getting dangerous along the Yangtze and in China's major cities. The author doesn't bore the reader with background information, letting the action speak for itself. However, it can be a little confusing to the non historian what is going on here: A powerful nationalist party, devoted to land reform and to expelling foreigners, had been formed under Sun Yat-Sen. His party, the Kuomintang (KMT), fomented unrest among students and workers, with assistance from the Stalinist communist bureaucracy in Russia. He would send his hand-picked successor, the future cold-war anti-communist stalwart, Chiang Kai-scheck to Russia in 1923 to strengthen the KMT's ties to Stalin and Trotsky. Chiang became KMT leader after Sun's death in 1925. The revolution began that year after British police gunned down twelve people striking a Japanese mill in Shanghai. Soon, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Canton would become paralyzed by general strikes. KMT military forces would be attacking warlords in the countryside in an effort to unify the country, while posing a serious threat to the military forces of the foreign occupiers. Communists within the KMT, headed by Mao Zedong, would grow increasingly mistrustful of Chiang's loyalty to their mutual goals, but for the duration of the three-year revolution they would be held within the KMT in order to comply with the wishes of their Kremlin sponsors, who continued to have faith in Chiang at this time. Enough history.

The main thing which made Holman a loner was his insistence on doing the right thing, even if it meant bucking the accepted norms. His sense of personal responsibility included his refusal to look the other way when standards were being ignored in a work area, such as when untrained coolies were opening and shutting valves in a ship's engine room. Lt. Collins would not allow him to train more sailors to assist him, but he did allow him to go ahead and choose a Chinese engine room laborer for this purpose. Holman chose the energetic and smart Po-han, and they engaged in a tutoring program, with the master machinist Holman patiently pointing out the proper function of every valve and the route of every pipe in the place. This began the unraveling of morale among the Sand Pebbles, as the crew was known. The head coolie of the ship already was highly agitated at Holman's assertion of authority over the engine room, including its coolie staff; now there would be widespread Chinese resentment of one of their own working so close with a foreigner. The ship's crew hated the idea of a coolie being granted the privilege of learning how a ship operated, and would dislike Holman for treating a Chinese as an equal.

Holman would have one friend on the ship besides Po-han. Frenchy Burgoyne worked with him in the engine room. Frenchy would become involved with a Chinese girl, Maily, who he saved from being sold into prostitution. Holman's existential predicament would deepen as he witnessed the tragedy which would afflict the lives of these three individuals.

Another significant relationship would develop, between Holman and the new schoolteacher arrived in China, Shirley Eckert. Shirley would be traveling on the gunboat with Mr. Jameson to his China Light Mission. Jameson was as idealistic an individual as a missionary could be. He believed his mission did not need American naval protection, and he engaged in a bitter debate with Lt. Collins over this issue. Although at this time Holman, representing the rough and tumble sailor's world, would not be seen as a candidate for the affections of an educated lady like Shirley, they nevertheless become close friends in the short time available before she started her duties. She was immediately attracted by his thoughtful way of talking with her, and he started to question what his priorities were after seeing her perspective on life. The story unfolds to the point where nationalist forces threaten to overtake the region where China Light is located, and Lt. Collins mounts a mission to sail the ship to rescue the Americans there. Mr. Jameson and Shirley take the position their good deeds will make them safe from the approaching marauding Chinese forces; Holman makes a decision that could brand him as a deserter, if he lives; and the ensuing attack by the Chinese forces everyone to take drastic actions within a context of high suspense. This is not a book with a predictable or happy ending, making it the more engaging and realistic to read.

Holman is given a great last sentence at the end of the terrific 1966 Robert Wise-directed movie of "The Sand Pebbles", starring Steve McQueen, Candice Bergen, and Richard Crenna. Although these words appear at the end of the movie and do not occur in the book, they perfectly describe Holman's situation, when he says, "I was home - What happened? What the hell happened?"
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Checkman Very good job. A well written review.

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