Book Review: Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener

I love the musicals and South Pacific by Rogers and Hammerstein was one of he first ones I ever saw. As a kid I had no idea that the musical was based on a book but, at the beginning of the latest touring production of South Pacific, which I saw back in January, there was a ‘title card’ if you will which had on it the first paragraph of James A. Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific – I was intrigued enough then to seek out the book and read it.

Tales of the South Pacific is a series of short stories set in the Pacific Theatre in World War 2. It shows the lives of the men, officers and nurses that served in this hot and mysterious region, covering battles and personal lives with equal attention. The stories are all of different lengths, some being wrapped up in a few pages, but others weaving their complicated tales over 20 or 30 pages. Regardless of subject matter, each story emphasises that the war in the South Pacific mainly involved waiting some small amount of action, then more waiting!

If you’re at all familiar with the musical then you’ll recognise some of the names in the short stories; Nellie Forbush, Emile de Becque, Joe Cable and others, but you don’t have to have enjoyed the musical to enjoy the book. As well as being an interesting read, the book also touches on some fairly gritty subjects, including racism towards the native populations and nurses being attacked by enlisted men, and while that characters involved in these are not particularly pleasant, the majority of characters such as Luther Billis, are depicted merely as regular people trying to serve their country in difficult circumstances. The stories intertwine somewhat, with some characters not exactly appearing in other stories, but being mentioned on occasion.

As I said, I was prompted to read the book by a love of South Pacific the musical, but if you’ve any interest at all in the second world war, I’d definitely recommend this book.

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