Review of Flower of the Pacific
Oregon novelist Boldt classifies new romance as 'best seller'
It wasn't meant to be confusing; it just turned out that way. Ashland novelist Lana McGraw Boldt's "Flower of the Pacific" looks like a romance on the front cover and like a sequel to "War and Remembrance" on the back.
For that matter, the 452-page Bantam paperback original reads like a combination of a romance novel and historical fiction with special emphasis on the historical.
Boldt says those who put it on the book racks in supermarkets and bookstores can't always tell whether to put it with romances or war novels. Nor does she care, she says, as long as customers take it off the racks.
"When they ask me how I classify it," she said, "I say 'best-seller.'"
The sprawling story begins in Hawaii on the eve of 1941 and ends in Tokyo Sept. 2, 1945, as Gen. Douglas MacArthur is heard on the radio addressing signatories and dignitaries on the USS Missouri after the surrender.
The principal characters include a Japanese-American woman caught in Japan at the war's start, and her fiance, a U.S. Army Air Corps pilot flying a P-40 and later a fork-tailed P-38 against the Japanese in New Guinea and the Philippines, but only after escaping the Japanese in the 1942 fall of the Philippines.
In 1980 Boldt summoned up the nerve to travel to New York City to find a literary agent who would find her a publisher. She had sketches for 14 novels. Official publication date for "Flower of the Pacific" is June, but Boldt has seen copies on bookracks all over.
I'm told it's No. 13 on Albertson's list and in the Fred Meyer top 10," Boldt said. "A Bantam editor called to say they've already run off 15,000 more copies, because they ran out in the warehouse and wanted to be covered for June. I felt great about that, because the original run was 150,000 copies."
Boldt lives in Ashland with her husband and two daughters. She has an English literature degree from the University of Oregon, and she studied applied psychology at the University of Washington. Her first systematic interest in World War II began when she and her husband, Darrell, were in the Peace Corps in Micronesia, where they helped establish the Marshall Islands Cultural Museum.
"The war is still omnipresent over there, with rusting hulks all around. Everywhere you go, you know something happened," she said.
Research on the novel captivated her. She estimates she read some 90 books for background, but emphasizes her greatest sources were interviews, archives, personal documents and museums.
"The University of California at Davis graduate library has an excellent emphemera collection. They have transcripts of the war crimes trials, photos you've never seen before, a wide variety of journals, including POW diaries and almost all of it is in dusty boxes. I just told them who I was, and they let me have at them.
"At Berkeley, they have 13 volumes of intelligence reports and an excellent map collection, which helped me tremendously. They made huge copies for me, which I still have. Another great help is The New York Times aerial maps showing where and when the bombings were. I wanted to make sure that if someone in the book went from one place to another in Tokyo, they wouldn't walk on water or into a district that hadn't existed since a particular bombing raid," she said.
Boldt's father flew B-17s and later B-29s, and still flies a single-engine private plane.
"When he still had his instructor's license, he took me up so I could feel what it was like to fly, to bank, to feel the stick in your hand," she said. "Then I went to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum to see exactly what the cockpits were like in the planes I would be writing about.
"I was extremely lucky that Don Lopez of the Smithsonian was there, because he was in the Air Force and flew the planes. He knew the research I'd done, so he could tell me in great personal detail exactly what it was like. He opened absolutely everything up to me - planes, documents, gun-camera films, the works."
Boldt's novel is preceded by 2 1/2 pages of acknowledgements of museums, archives and individuals who gave her personal, autobiographical insight into the period.
"Two of my most important sources came because of a traffic accident," Boldt said. "I met a lovely Filipina woman who ended up graciously answering tons of questions on the Philippines. Through her I met a man who gave me even more details, many of them just horrible, about the fall of Manila, the Bataan Death March, the fall of Corregidor and the endless war of the guerrillas. It had to be excruciating to dredge up those memories, even after all these years, but he was very kind, very patient and very exact. No matter what awful thing he was describing, he kept his tone very even, as if he were talking about the price of pork chops."
Tokyo Rose is not a character in the book. Indeed, in a sense, there was no such person as Tokyo Rose. Some 10,000 Japanese-Americans were caught in Japan as the war started. Among them a still-unknown number of young women were coerced, sometimes with threats of death and torture, to make English-language broadcasts to Allied forces from Tokyo, elsewhere in Japan and Japanese-held territory in China and Indo‑China.
One woman, Iva Toguri D'Aquino, was convicted of high treason in 1948 and sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined $10,000. Gerald Ford pardoned her in 1977. Neither she nor anyone else called herself Tokyo Rose; she called herself Orphan Annie on her program Zero Hour.
Two of Boldt's major characters are forced to make such broadcasts, but Boldt had no intention of characterizing Iva D'Aquino.
"Around 12 or 14 women are known for sure to have made broadcasts, and my character is not based on any of them specifically," Boldt said. "Through great help in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., I've read transcripts and listened to about nine hours of broadcasts recorded off shortwave radio. There's nothing in any of them even remotely treasonous. A great mythology grew up about Tokyo Rose working against morale, giving exact casualty figures, mentioning specific units, but you never meet anyone who personally heard it.
"I didn't try contacting Mrs. D'Aquino before I wrote the book, but when it was ready to come out, I wrote to her in care of her family's mercantile company in Illinois telling her that I wasn't trying to tell her story and that I did not want to cause her any pain or embarrassment. I haven't heard from her."
"Flower" is Boldt's first novel. Her second will involve a westward movement from Western Virginia, before it was West Virginia, ending in Oregon in 1924.
"It gives me a lot of leeway," Boldt said. "A lot happened then. There's a lot of war in there.
"No, I don't have a combat fixation. It's just that certain periods are crucibles. By examining people in these times, you learn what the human base metal is. You learn more about people by putting them in crisis. That's what literature is all about, character and action, how they grow out of each other," she said. "World War II was absolutely the most pivotal point in our lives.
"That wonderful Filipino man said it when I asked him if he felt the experiences gave him courage or weakened him. He said he learned right away he had to go on, or he would die. But others were demoralized - and most them did die. It's not just combat but the whole experience surrounding it. It forces people to be what they really are.
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