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Tales of the South Pacific

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Winner of the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
Enter the exotic world of the South Pacific, meet the men and women caught up in the drama of a big war. The young Marine who falls madly in love with a beautiful Tonkinese girl. Nurse Nellie and her French planter, Emile De Becque. The soldiers, sailors, and nurses playing at war and waiting for love in a tropic paradise.

384 pages, Mass Market Paperback

First published January 1, 1947

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About the author

James A. Michener

329 books2,860 followers
James Albert Michener is best known for his sweeping multi-generation historical fiction sagas, usually focusing on and titled after a particular geographical region. His first novel, Tales of the South Pacific , which inspired the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific, won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Toward the end of his life, he created the Journey Prize, awarded annually for the year's best short story published by an emerging Canadian writer; founded an MFA program now, named the Michener Center for Writers, at the University of Texas at Austin; and made substantial contributions to the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, best known for its permanent collection of Pennsylvania Impressionist paintings and a room containing Michener's own typewriter, books, and various memorabilia.

Michener's entry in Who's Who in America says he was born on Feb. 3, 1907. But he said in his 1992 memoirs that the circumstances of his birth remained cloudy and he did not know just when he was born or who his parents were.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 575 reviews
Profile Image for Duane.
828 reviews430 followers
September 2, 2016
1948 Pulitzer Prize winner.

This was the book that caused the Pulitzer committee to change the name of the category from novel to fiction. That's because this is actually a group of 19 short stories, and they are similar in themes and subject matter, and they are sequential or chronological which gives it the feeling of a novel.

It's about WWII in the Pacific. An ugly, horrific disaster taking place in paradise; talk about a contradiction. But it's historical fiction at a high level; you don't come away from a Michener book saying I didn't learn anything. And where most historical fiction writers lean heavily on the fiction and less on the history, Michener leans on the history.

This book spawned a successful Broadway musical, South Pacific, and a feature film. It was also the basis for Michener's television series, Adventures in Paradise. If you are a Michener newbie I wouldn't start with this one. I always recommend Hawaii. I think it is his best novel, and if you are only going to read one, that should be the one.

4 stars.
Profile Image for Ensiform.
1,370 reviews139 followers
June 4, 2013
Easily more than the sum of its parts, this collection of stories is an eye-opening account of life in wartime: not the horrors of war (though there’s a bit of that), but the waiting, the selfless heroism, the bottled-up passion, the thankless endless toil, the vast logistics of a campaign, the suddenness of death and loss and love. The omission of this work from the academic canon is utterly incomprehensible to me; it’s everything that All Quiet on the Western Front is said to be, and more. Michener is far more than a captivating storyteller, collector of colorful characters, painter of vivid natural imagery, and chronicler of the orchestrations of world warfare. Each of the "tales" comprising his carefully-constructed epic narrative is at once thematically and stylistically related to the other smaller narratives and at the same time artistically whole in itself. While he does have poetic phrases at his command, what he can say without saying it – a subtly omitted word or a hint - is breathtaking.

Michener impresses with his vast understanding of the scope of a military operation, as in the chapter “Alligator” (the codename for a fictitious invasion) – the planning, the estimated casualties, the men needed to build, the men needed simply to replace pencils and paper for plans, and on and on – and then he finishes with a few brief, poignant lines of a man who wrote to a plain woman – “who would never be married in a hundred years anyway” – a proposal: “You was very sweet to me and I want to tell you if I…” “But he didn’t. Some don’t.” But, Michener says, that letter plus the one from the chaplain was almost as good as being married. That talent of Michener’s, the ability to juggle the big picture with the little human details, the forgotten grunts, the KIA and the faceless laborers, just blows me away. With every paragraph he weaves a new story of heroism, or efficiency, or defiance, or laziness, or lust, or bravery, or shame, and every character is all too human and believable. It makes the climax of the book, the landing at the island of Kuralei, all the more moving, as his narrator surveys the littered beaches and mourns the dead. This book is quite simply a brilliant masterpiece that should be read by every student of American history; it may be fiction, but it shows more plainly how this was the “Greatest Generation” without hagiography or needless embellishment. The did what they were asked to do, and worked and died and complained and loved, and they weren’t saints or perfect soldiers. They were Americans, is all.
Profile Image for Dax.
251 reviews118 followers
May 20, 2020
This is not a collection of short stories but rather a group of tales- some more tangential than others- with recurring characters, themes and locations. These stories largely consist of officers, enlisted men, nurses, and natives who attempt to stay busy- physically and mentally- as they await the next push of the war.

Michener's two areas of focus here are the clash of drastically different cultures and the soldiers' struggle to grapple with the age old question of "why am I here"? Most of these stories detail the inner workings of the characters' minds, their desires, their fears. I was expecting more attention given to the conflict itself, but Michener is more interested in illustrating the emotional toll of waiting; waiting for the next deadly push and trying to make the most out of the time they have to themselves.

This is a novel of several narrative threads that are tied together with the concluding attack on Kuralei. It is the only chapter dedicated to conflict, and it is expertly done by Michener. Some of the best chapters, however, are rather simple affairs such as a Doctor trying to find passion in a letter to his wife, or a lonely enlisted man who clings to an unknown pen pal.

Tragic stuff. Wonderful book.
Profile Image for Manray9.
383 reviews101 followers
September 6, 2021
James A. Michener's Tales of the South Pacific, a collection of connected stories of rear-echelon service in the Solomons and New Hebrides during World War II, received a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1948, inspired the Broadway musical South Pacific, and served as the foundation for the early-1960s TV series Adventures in Paradise. I found it boring. In trying to describe the tales, the words flat, cliched, repetitive, and dated came to mind. The book has not withstood the test of time. It rates only Two Stars in the Bali Ha'i of my library.
Profile Image for Michael Finocchiaro.
Author 3 books5,635 followers
September 21, 2021

I am of that generation that grew up seeing these monstrously enormous hardcovers with MICHENER written down the spine on bookshelves on the rare moments my family went visiting. I later read a handful of them (Alaska, Texas, and Chesapeake) and felt myself a bigger, better person for having survived them. Actually, that isn't fair because, especially for Texas and Chesapeake, I really did enjoy the stories and felt I learned something about history each time. They were all multigenerational family epics of fiction set with relative realism in a historical, geographical context.

Tales of the South Pacific is a totally different animal, however. In his first book, at the relatively old age for a debut writer at 40, Michener fictionalizes his own experiences in WWII in the South Pacific in a series of 19 short stories. They are rather scattershot at the start but start to dovetail together towards the middle and then follow the narrative of an island-hopping campaign to the end. I will risk being called excessively woke when I say that the portrayal of women here (almost 100% prostitutes) and the way they are treated and talked about by all the men is deplorable. If the stories hadn't coagulated into a narrative towards the end, I would have dissed the book with only 3 stars. However, there is a certain quality to Michener's writing which, if at first sounded too much like Hemmingway, seems to develop its own unique voice towards the middle and remains somewhat a precursor to the sarcastic humor later employed by James Heller in Catch-22.

As per usual during this period, the war dominated publishing and there were probably not a lot of alternatives for the Pulitzer committee when they gave Michener his first and only Pulitzer Prize.

My votable list of Pulitzer winners which I have read (only have the 40s, 50s, and 60s to finish!):
Profile Image for Taija.
353 reviews8 followers
August 22, 2023
1948 Pulitzer Prize Winner.

I read this book for my Pulitzer Prize Reading Challenge. I'm probably already prejudiced when reading any PP winner, but I really tried to remain neutral while reading this book.

With the amount of WWII literature I have been reading, I'm finding myself wondering if I am in fact a Pacifist - or at least against war. Because I'm NOT against someone physically defending themselves.

This book was heart wrenching. So many men died. So many men committed adultery on their wives. I HATE adultery. I don't know if anyone can remain integral in war. The more I read of people in the trenches, and the effects of war (PTSD, dead fathers, mothers, brothers, lovers, family) the more I believe war is awful.

I respect those who fought and died for their country, but then I'm torn when I read accounts of those men willing to lay down their lives for those they left behind, but are having multiple affairs with women while abroad.

This book tugged on so many of my heart strings. Men fell in love with island woman but refused to marry them because they were coloured (yellow, black, mixed). I wasn't used to reading a book where most of the racism was thrown against other races (like the "yellows" or the "Japs") and I wasn't as affected by the racial terms. However, as soon as I read about a coloured person being called a "nigger," I would flare up. Interesting how racism affects us more when your race is the target.

I was going to give this book a 4 star because of the amount of affairs, but the last chapters did me in for a 5 star. Michener wrote so so so so well.

I'm really glad I knew that this book was a collection of short stories- literally "tales of the South Pacific," various accounts of men who fought in different locations. I may have gotten confused and quit reading because the story line didn't flow smoothly.

My favourite chapters were 'Mutiny,' 'Our Heroine,' and 'Fo Dolla.'

Highly recommend this book!
Profile Image for Andrew Kraemer.
8 reviews10 followers
May 21, 2013
I must say that I really did not enjoy reading this book. It is incredibly slow, is shows a very distorted fairy-taleesque picture of the Pacific theater, and many of the problems in the story, in my opinion, are incredibly mundane.
However, despite disliking the book I respect the role of Tales of the South Pacific in American literary history. Here's why: When this book was released in 1947, it was the book America needed, not the book that best showed life in the Pacific. The American public had been through so much during WWII that they would not be interested in a Saving Private Ryan novel equivalent, like Helmet for My Pillow. As a result, we get Tales of the South Pacific. A mundane book about mundane events, except for the second to last story.

Read this book if you are interested in reading about how people wanted to view the war after it ended, but not as a way to view the war as it happened.
Profile Image for Matthew Klobucher.
41 reviews50 followers
September 8, 2007
I think this book is a must-read for any American in the post-WWII era. Framed as a collection of loosely-connected short stories, narrated from a single perspectivce, Mitchner weaves together themes of love, loss, and struggle with a lucid and sometimes technical commentary on the American war effort in the Pacific theater. His characters are both intensely human and larger than life, and the developing theme throughout the book is that titanic and often tragic effors contribute to the betterment of individual people (and to our society as a whole). This is the oldest story in our collective history: anecdotes and tales of adventure, set against an exotic background, grounded in our own perspective. The "Tales" are above all inspiring--and stand apart from any American literature written since the inception of our nation.
Profile Image for Deanne.
1,775 reviews113 followers
May 1, 2013
Not at all like South Pacific, no body talking happy talk, no women warbling about washing men out of their hair.
What there is, is a collection of stories, some funny, some tragic and all set in the south pacific. Michener writes well and you begin to care about the men he talks about, many seem disillusioned, far away from home and family and seeming to spend most of the time waiting.
Profile Image for Jason Pettus.
Author 24 books1,324 followers
December 12, 2020
The Jason Pettus 2020 Autumn Reading Challenge (join us!)
#4: A Pulitzer Prize winner

When I was growing up in the 1970s, seemingly every adult I knew had at least a couple of James A. Michener's humongous historical-fiction tomes in their bookshelves, and it always made me curious to take some of them on once I got old enough and became a good enough reader to do so; but now that I have gotten old enough, Michener has profoundly fallen out of favor, and in the 2020s I doubt you'll find even one young person out of ten who has even heard of him. That's a shame, I discovered after finally reading my very first book of his, which happens to be the very first book he wrote, 1947's Tales of the South Pacific; because despite the daunting reputation of his books' page counts, this turned out to be one of the more pleasantly readable books I've taken on in the last year, a much more poetic and emotionally moving manuscript than I was expecting from Michener's reputation as "King of the Overlong Exposition."

Michener's one and only Pulitzer win of the over 50 books he published, and the source material for the Broadway musical of the same name, this is even more surprising when you realize that he was a simple high-school teacher with no publishing credits in the years leading up to World War Two, and that he only wrote this book in a personal attempt to capture all the crazy stories he witnessed as a Navy journalist during the war (a position he volunteered for because of otherwise being a pacifist Quaker, and a position only given to him because his commanding officers mistakenly thought he was the son of Admiral Marc Mitscher, and therefore needed to be handled with kid gloves). But once you read it, you immediately understand why the wartime Pulitzer committee would consider this irresistible catnip; because much like John Hersey's fellow Pulitzer-winning A Bell for Adano two years previously, Michener's main point here is to show how the benefits of a capitalist democracy like the US provided the exact entrepreneurial skills and "can-do attitude" that allowed the US to be the decisive factor in the Allies winning the war in the first place, a sort of paean to the kinds of quick thinking, solutions on the fly, and dogged persistence that allowed the American military to finally overcome a vastly superior Japanese force, one that already knew the tiny hidden islands of the Pacific Ocean with a kind of intimacy and mastery that the US still hasn't acquired even 80 years later.

But what sets this apart from previous wartime books -- and what truly made it so beloved when it first came out -- is that Michener digs down to find the beating heartbeat of humanity that lurks within these stories of battleship maneuvers and bombing raids, excelling at showing just how much downtime there is between battles in war, and the various good, bad, serious and silly ways the soldiers involved deal with these anxious downtimes. And in this, Michener is surprisingly critical of the very soldiers he means to champion, not shying away at all from the acknowledgement that alcoholism was rampant among the US military during the war, that there were many soldiers who used fascism as a convenient excuse to line their own pockets, and that American nurses had to be stationed literally on islands by themselves with no male soldiers in sight, for fear of otherwise being the perpetual victims of sexual assault the entire time they were there. It's the back-and-forth between this idealistic heroism and the sometimes ugly realities of human nature that provides the frisson that makes this book so readable, and it pretty much draws a line in the sand that demarks the way that all military stories were told before it, and the way all such stories were permanently changed after it.

Nonetheless, I'm giving it 4 stars instead of 5, mostly as a way of acknowledging that younger readers and especially readers of color will find every single problematic element that's almost always found in books this old; for despite Michener's relatively progressive stance here that "rape is bad," he still loads this manuscript up with so many awkward cultural statements about race and gender as to give heart palpitations to any good Woke. I personally wasn't that particularly bothered by it; but with every passing year, I feel more and more compelled to follow up such statements with an acknowledgement that I'm a 51-year-old straight white male, so of course I wasn't that particularly bothered by it, but that others with different backgrounds than mine will find this a much more troubling book than I did. (And of course, the less said about the musical adaptation's "There's Nothin' Like a Dame," in which Rodgers and Hammerstein make a lighthearted joke about these soldiers' predelection for serially raping any woman who comes within grabbing distance of them [actual lyrics: "We feel as hungry as the wolf felt when he met Red Riding Hood"], the better.)

So all in all, like most books of this type, caution and an open mind is required when approaching Tales of the South Pacific here 74 years after its initial publication; but if you're able to do so, you'll find a surprisingly enjoyable, surprisingly sophisticated record of both the highs and lows of the so-called "Greatest Generation," and I have to admit that this did nothing but even further solidify my interest in reading yet more by Michener. (For those who don't know, by the '70s Michener had become much more famous for outputting enormous 1,500-page novels every few years about such specific subjects as the history of Poland, the founding of Judaism, and the establishment of America's space program, gaining accolades worldwide for his meticulous research and even-handed overviews; so there's a big part of me that feels like I haven't "truly experienced" Michener until I take on at least one of these.) That probably won't be coming until another year from now, though, so I hope you'll join me again in late autumn 2021 for that!
Profile Image for Theophilus (Theo).
290 reviews24 followers
March 19, 2010
Outstanding. My favorite Michener. It won a Pulitzer Prize, what more can I say about it. Mini vignettes about World War II in the Pacific that are funny, ironic, and tragic. How it became a musical I'll never understand. It should have been an epic series like "Winds of War" or "Band of Brothers". Maybe some day. After this I moved on to "Hawaii," "Caravans," "Return to Paradise," "The Source," and of course "The Drifters" among many others. (I was reading these while on active duty in the Air Force so I could visualize quite easily some of his settings.) As you can see I developed a love for Michener after "Tales . . ." You may get hooked too. Read and enjoy the ride.
Profile Image for Roxanne Russell.
379 reviews24 followers
January 16, 2013
Here's a book I've heard about all my life, maybe more so the musical, and an author who couldn'tbe more popular. He was a favorite of my grandfather's. I get the sense that his narrative voice may have been similar to the voice in my grandfather's head- the same matter-of-fact, US white male dominated world-view that pre-dated the 70's. Yet, still sensitive to all people and empathetic to the human condition. It was interesting to read this just after Guard of Honor- same war, same time period- 2 very different waiting games but with similar relationship tensions among genders, classes, ranks and ethnic groups. I applaud Michener for the sensory experiences he can manufacture and for playing around with narrative structures- chronology and narrators were unpredictable.
Profile Image for David.
Author 31 books2,042 followers
September 9, 2020
Excellent book that progresses from lighter fare to a powerfully poignant ending.
Profile Image for Sara J. (kefuwa).
527 reviews45 followers
October 17, 2017
**Review Pending**

How does one review a book like this? I took awhile to get through it (but that could be just me - I don't particularly feel the need to rush through books like this... only taking it in a bit at a time) but I found it quite engaging on the whole. I found out that it inspired a Rodgers & Hammerstein film of the same name - and after that I could not but read the book in that narrator voice that usually comes from films of that era so that the whole reading experience became somewhat documentary-like in parts.

"Before me lay the dead, the heroic dead who took the island. Upon a strange plateau, on a strange island, in a strange sea, far from their farms and villages, they slept forever beside the lagoon which bore them to their day of battle. Over them the sea birds dipped in endless homage. Above them the deep blue sky erected a cathedral. I cannot put into words the emotions that capture me as I looked on the graves of my friends. Never once during the five weeks I helped to plan the operations... did I believe that I would die. No more did any man who now lay still in death. The Marine in the prow of the ship, he might die. The SeaBee who made noises when he ate, he might topple from the crane. But not I!

... If you sit at home and read that two hundred and eighty-one men die in taking an island, the number is only a symbol for the mind to classify. But when you stand at the white crosses, the two hundred and eighty one dead became men: the sons, the husbands, and the lovers."
Profile Image for Annabelle.
1,056 reviews13 followers
June 18, 2023
South Pacific was one of the first movies and musicals I saw on Betamax, back in the late seventies. I must have seen it no less than a dozen times since then, and Bali-Ha'i, Bloody Mary, Lt. Cable, Liat, and the dashing Emile de Becque were household names in my household. But up until a few years ago I didn't realize the movie, which was based on the Broadway musical, was based on a book by James Michener, an author I've admired since reading his exhaustively researched epic, Hawaii--that was a truly exceptional book. And yet, Tales of the South Pacific is a very different book.

The tales are a collection of stories of the islands during WWII, loosely connected through its eclectic cast of characters, with narration by an unnamed Michener. War is the circumstance that binds each narrative, Tolstoy's War and Peace seemingly the characters' book du jour, but save for two or three tales, warfare does not dominate the story, at least not to me. Michener's magic lies in the telling of the story, captivating even with the most innocuous of plots, such as an inter-island search for crates of whisky for Christmas eve. But since the romance of South Pacific and Bali-Ha'i have stayed with me since childhood, it was the chapters on Lt. Joe Cable, Liat, Bloody Mary, Nellie Forbush, and Emile de Becque I found most fascinating. The only real romance, of course, lies in Bali-Ha'i, "lonely island," "special island," "floating in the sunshine." Joe Cable and Liat's encounters, so romantically, musically played out in Hollywood vignettes you tend to ignore the fact her mother practically pimped her--are gritty, sordid, and urgent. For a sense of urgency, exceedingly overruled by the prejudice of its time, ruled the days and waking nights of American officers and servicemen, and precisely why prescient French expats exiled their womenfolk to Bali-Ha'i. But "Cable was truly enraptured. The frieze of women looked like models awaiting the immortalizing brush of Gauguin. Unaware of their forbidding ugliness by American middle class standards, they were equally unaware of their surpassing beauty by the artist's immortal standards." Clearly ripe for the picking, by Bloody Mary's standards. On the other hand, Forbush and de Becque's romance most resembles that of the Broadway musical, if you can ignore the haciendero Frenchman's (as portrayed by the ridiculously handsome Italian Rossano Brazzi in the movie) gold tooth and the fact that he has four daughters by Polynesian, Tonkinese, and Melanese women. Most of the stories are inconclusive, but for the occasional definitive sentiment. Such as when "Lt. Cable acknowledged that he had reached a great impasse in his life. At that time he did not know that never again, as long as he lived, would he write to that girl in Philadelphia. He would try several times thereafter, but false words would not come, and true words he dared not write." I believe Michener dared, and wrote true.
Profile Image for Kenny.
475 reviews10 followers
June 15, 2009
Howard Winant points to the questioning of unchallenged American values—“was the United States really ‘the land of the free, and the home of the brave’? (148)—as the “end of innocence,” led by the black civil rights movement and sympathizers. In his use of the facetious, dramatized, bigoted caricature of a young Midwestern nurse, Nellie Forbush, Michener addresses the end of innocence by calling attention to Nurse Forbush’s ignorant racism through her own absurd, erratic behavior. Specifically, the momentary suspension of her infatuation towards De Becque upon seeing his dark-skinned daughters casts her in an irrational, brutish light. Michener’s description of Nellie’s violent emotional and physical aversion to children suggests that he himself disapproves of such behavior, and was generally reproving such ignorance as could be found at that time in the United States, particularly in the more rural areas, seen in Nellie’s own background: “Her entire Arkansas upbringing made it impossible for her to deny the teachings of her youth” (138). We can understand the negative connotations attributed to Nellie��s character especially in the juxtaposition of her rant—“Emile De Becque had lived with the nigger. He had nigger children. If she married him, they would be her step-daughters” (138)—and the repeated use (or variation on) the word “children.” Such hatred, as read in Nellie’s “revulsion,” seems incongruent and simply wrong when directed towards children, a point which Michener emphasizes by lumping such loathing with more innocent vocabulary (too, “step-daughters”). Furthermore, after her tantrum, Nellie becomes even more of a ridiculous character in Michener’s own description, behaving like a child (“‘No!’ Nellie cried in real anguish, stamping her foot. ‘It isn’t that! It’s something you don’t know.’” (139)) and taking actions that, out of context of the rest of the narrative, might otherwise illustrate a truly insane person. Her extreme swings of emotion—between recoiling from De Becque and the children for his involvement with their dark-skinned mothers, and sudden, feverish desire for the adventure that living on an island and entering into such an exotic family suggest—discredit her character, and advocate for a reading that holds at least some intentional degree of irony on Michener’s part. In this way, by creating a truly ridiculous, non-commendable character who’s defining trait at the end of the narrative is her deplorable racism (towards children), the author himself challenges the same as-yet-unquestioned values of American life that the “end of innocence” confronts, and suggests that racial discrimination not be left unopposed, but, rooted in ignorance, should be corrected by education and the entry into a new post-war era of equality.
Profile Image for Tim.
201 reviews39 followers
August 4, 2017
This was Michener's first book and it is obvious why it won the Pulitzer. Written in 1946 and published a year later, it must have been one of the first epics on the Second World War, and one that focused entirely on the Pacific theatre would catch the eye of the jury even easier. Although widely fictional - as always with Michener - the excellent short stories and tales take the reader along some of the U.S. Navy operations between 1942 and '44, focusing on the Solomon and Russell islands, as well as a major fictional operation against the Japanese empire on Kuralei island.

The author served in the Pacific himself, making this 360-page novel extremely vivid, accountable and worth reading to this day. Michener had the talent to describe a cacao plant in every detail for half a dozen pages, and as a reader you were still captured by his beautiful use of English.
Profile Image for John Randolph.
44 reviews1 follower
March 31, 2015
Not compelling. Felt too much like reading out of obligation. I kept thinking, "It won the 1948 Pulitzer, it will be good. Just keep going". Yet, time is short and there are too many other glorious options waiting to spend in drudgery. It's not you, it's me.
Profile Image for Hana.
522 reviews300 followers
December 22, 2015
Our fathers and grandfathers war. Now we need to fight the one on our hands. Can't do a good review with current GR settings. Just housekeeping here.
August 21, 2022
I wish I could put my finger on why I found this book such a chore to read; all I can say is that felt uneven and most of the 'tales' were just stale and lifeless.
485 reviews139 followers
May 10, 2016

I must say I LOVE this book.

Michener's tale is about what people do in a war
when they are just forced to sit around on lots of islands
because the alternative is allowing the Japanese to sit around on them instead.
It was the war he says when everyone got a chance to read Tolstoy's "War and Peace".
That's how long it was...the book AND the waiting.
'Rock-jolly' got some - these cracked and had to be sent back to the States 'under guard'.
Another stole a truck with nowhere to go - his island had only 3 miles of road.
One hit an officer.
One stowed away on a ship - any ship, going anywhere.
And no one was spared feet fungus,prickly heat and malaria.

I have visited the Solomons and Guadacanal where large tracts of land
are still mined from this period of bloody history.
There are places here where folk still won't venture.
One near the local highschool.
And the native people were still talking about it, this war,
as fresh as if it had happened yesterday.
But I knew it was 1974.
I didn't realise then that 29 years was a very short time
when it came to war, the never forgotten tragedy of a war.

They took me out in their canoe
to one of the several channels separating the scattered islands of the Shortlands
not far off Bouganville,
to point out to me the submerged American plane that had crashed there
sometime in the mid 1940's.
It lay there, a huge shadow,
a daily reminder,
and suddenly past and present clashed together.
It was only in later years that I realised that WE hadn't finished discussing
that war either. Obsessed is not the word
...perhaps it is Grief and Loss and Horror.THAT was the obsession.

A few days later two of the young children, out fishing from a canoe,
had hooked a shark which began dragging them down that channel
and out to the open sea, beyond the reef.
Laughingly they retold how they had found a knife and cut the line.
Their white teeth flashed as they giggled.
No drama. This was their backyard.
But I had been told how the landing marines,
terrified of sharks - it wasn't their backyard -
had been given a shark-repellant to throw in the water
when they were wading in. It didn't work , of course,
but it got them out of their landing craft, with faith intact.

People who see the musical "South Pacific" as a soft alternative
may have forgotten that summoning up deep racism in plot and song
had only received similar exposure in "Showboat".
To place this in the musical was to be true to Michener's book
and to sing about it , sheer defiance.
And racism is still far from dead in America,

It is only in the 18th chapter (there are 19 altogether ),
that we actually have a Big Battle
with "The Landing on Kuralei".
It explodes in useless and unavoidable slaughter,
mainly of young men we have just gotten to know in some detail
- they are blown apart before the fighting has even gotten underway.
And one of the best and most humane of leaders is killed by a suicide Japanese soldier.

He is replaced by a thorough racist, a man not worthy of any command
and in the final chapter we meet two niggers, as he calls them,
who are being punished by him by having to guard the cemetery.
"A Cemetery At Hoga Point" reunites us with the men just wiped out
in the previous chapter
For 'the niggers' it is an honour
and a place of reverence and fellowship
because here lie their mates,
both black and white.
They tend their graves and flower them

This last time I read Michener's book , I was still being surprised by the Process of Rereading.
I'd first read this book at 12 years of age...now I was in my early 60's.
But this was the first time
when reading this last chapter
I wept uncontrollably.
But I knew the book was exactly the same,
the book I'd read at twelve,
and a few times after.

So what had changed ???

Profile Image for Elise.
599 reviews
August 5, 2020
A few weeks ago I re-watched the musical South Pacific and decided to read the source material.
Many of the stories are familiar and there are humorous notes, but there is less gloss and more realism. Michener delves into serious subjects such as racism, rape, antisemitism, interracial romance and even homophobia. Some of the characters and stories in the play were conflated to tighten up the narrative.

Published in 1947, the book has an immediacy that is impossible to deny. For many, the Pacific war was a war of waiting punctuated by death and danger. An island would be captured, then they would wait while plans and preparations are made for the next battle.
Many of the stories are about the support staff: the supply officers, the nurses, the radio operators, the pilots ferrying cargo between islands, and the Seebees (short for CB, Construction Battalions. The Seebees were responsible for building camps, depots, ports and airstrips often on short time tables and under enemy fire.)

All of the men were far from home, dealing with tropical heat and disease in addition to the perils of war.
The book starts gently, and gradually builds to a crescendo with the invasion of the fictional island of Kuralei. He talks early on about planning and estimating casualty figures so that adequate medical support will be available, but the final battle is much bloodier than anticipated. Several characters from the earlier stories do not survive. In the final story, the narrator visits a small cemetery on an island where an airstrip was built in just 15 days under enemy fire. He muses about the good men who lie there.
"I was appalled at the relentless manner in which one dead plus one dead plus one dead add up to three white crosses. If you sit at home and read that 281 men die in taking an island, the number is only a symbol for the mind to classify. But when you stand at the white crosses, the 281 dead become men: the sons, the husbands and the lovers."

I thought many times about my father, and the half remembered stories he told. Of the photos of his camp in the Phillipines and paying young boys to knock down the coconuts from the trees to keep them from falling on soldiers heads. Of the sounds of monkeys in the trees. Of the map of Mindinao which hung above the piano for many years.
Profile Image for Lucas.
383 reviews103 followers
June 13, 2023
Immersing readers in the vibrant culture and dramatic history of the South Pacific, James A. Michener's "Tales of the South Pacific" is a captivating collection of interconnected stories that won him the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1948. With vivid descriptions, diverse characters, and a keen understanding of human nature, Michener paints a broad canvas of the Pacific theater during World War II. While some elements of the book might feel dated, its storytelling power and historical significance give it a solid four-star rating.

"Tales of the South Pacific" is not a conventional novel, but rather a series of 19 interlinked stories or sketches. Each tale offers a glimpse into the lives of the various servicemen and local inhabitants on the Pacific islands during the war. The characters are diverse and well-developed, ranging from nurses and naval officers to French planters and native islanders.

Michener's descriptions of the Pacific islands are stunning in their detail and vividness. From the bustling naval bases to the pristine natural landscapes, each setting is brought to life with evocative prose. One can almost feel the tropical heat, see the azure waters, and hear the hum of the military operations.

Yet, the heart of "Tales of the South Pacific" lies in its exploration of the human experience during wartime. Michener examines the hopes, fears, and struggles of his characters with sensitivity and insight, offering a nuanced picture of life during the war. Themes of love, loneliness, culture clash, and the absurdity of war are skillfully woven into the stories, giving the book a timeless relevance.

However, "Tales of the South Pacific" reflects the time it was written and the historical context it depicts. Some perspectives and portrayals may feel dated or problematic to contemporary readers, particularly in terms of racial and cultural representation. Nevertheless, the book remains an important historical document, providing valuable insights into the attitudes and conditions of a specific era.

In conclusion, "Tales of the South Pacific" is a compelling collection of stories that transports readers to the Pacific theater of World War II. With its vibrant settings, diverse characters, and thoughtful exploration of the human condition, it remains a classic of war literature. While certain elements may feel dated, the power of Michener's storytelling and the historical significance of the book earn it a well-deserved four-star rating.
Profile Image for Mike.
1,134 reviews33 followers
February 16, 2021
2.5 stars. This was a jarring read because of the way in which American colonialism and war are romanticized as heart-stirring nostalgia (more on that in a moment). I had seen the film version of the musical as a kid, but it was quite whitewashed, and I had not yet understood the context mentioned above.

It's not even that Michener celebrates America's colonial madness; it's that he seems blissfully unaware that the nation (or his book) is even engaged with it. As much as I hate Kipling, at least he was aware that he was an imperialist. The characters in this book are like the type Graham Greene satirized in The Quiet American, who just bumble their way through world affairs unaware that their meddling is leaving behind a trail of dumpster fire atrocities, only to look back on their handiwork and say, "Well, aren't you going to thank us for 'helping' you?" This book is like the fictional, unironic equivalent of Randy Newman's "Political Science." It essentially posits that the White Man’s Burden isn't so burdensome -- if only he could get to frolic with the native girls a little more often, and as long as the folks back home don't find out, naturally...

There are two themes running throughout these loose connections of tales: 1) American soldiers asking “What am I doing here?” and 2) the idea that the Japanese were destroying the land while the Americans were raping the women. (Michener uses that word several times, almost casually, in just that context.) Indeed, the most famous story, “Fo’ Dolla’,” upon which the musical and film were largely based, features the fictional island Bali Ha'i, described as teeming with young native girls who are being hidden away so they wouldn’t be “raped” by American soldiers. The exception is made for officers, who are allowed on the island to rape the underage girls on the sly.

That certainly changes one’s perception of the Rodgers & Hammerstein song “Bali Ha'i.”

In fact, that song is sung by “Bloody Mary,” who in the short story is inviting Joe onto the island so he can have his way with her daughter. The fact that this moment in the musical -- and this song in particular -- is so closely associated with nostalgia and celebrates the Good Old Days of American GIs in the Pacific is troubling to say the least. Michener’s fiction isn’t quite so romanticized as the musical, but it’s close. At times, I didn’t know if he was being straightforward or heavily ironic in his depiction of American colonial atrocity tugging at the heart-strings. Sometimes his lines, written in a seemingly unironic manner, left me shaking my head. (Example: “Tonkinese were in reality Chinese, sort of the way Canadians were Americans, only a little different.” Yikes. Where do we even begin to unpack all the issues with that line?)

I am quite aware that I’m reading these tales through the lens of a post-Vietnam, post-colonial 21st century perspective, in which the American-as-colonizer is criticized rather than romanticized, and in which American soldiers having their way with natives isn’t just a bit of “letting off steam,” but is a war crime. In truth, that’s the way it always was, but it took Vietnam for those realities to filter down through the American consciousness. These tales could never be written in this way -- and celebrated as straight nostalgia pieces -- in the 21st century. And that’s for the best.

Finally, a word on nostalgia: the descriptions, imagery, characters, and storylines in this book seemed just like the kind of stories returning soldiers from WWII would tell: quasi-mythical, gritty, slightly romanticized, and masking their atrocity in a kind of inauthentic naivety. (“I’m jus’ a small-town boy from Texas!” etc.) The stories here also remind me of the kind of movies that were made during the war, but without the Hollywood glam. The book was written for an audience who had never lived these experiences (including the returning soldiers), and also quite clearly for future audiences who would read the stories in years or decades hence. Michener speaks directly to these audiences in the opening tale, which acts as a prologue, almost as if he knew the stories in this book would be the “ur-text” or genesis for all later American mythologizing of the War in the Pacific.

Do these stories reflect what it was REALLY like to be stationed in the South Pacific? Yes and no. Which is to say that nostalgia doesn’t reflect our past experiences as much as it shapes and structures how we desire our past experiences to be remembered (by ourselves and by others). It teaches us what we SHOULD be desiring to remember, whether those memories are real or imagined. In that sense, my grandfather would think these stories reflect what he experienced during his time in the South Pacific, not because the stories are an accurate reflection of his memories as such, but because the stories are telling him precisely how he should remember his own experiences. (In short, the stories are conditioning him --and we as readers -- not just what to remember, but HOW to remember.) Nostalgia constructs memory (not vice versa), and so Michener is structuring how we should feel about this specific time and place (the South Pacific) by telling us exactly how we should all remember the events, even if we weren’t there. Indeed, whether we happened to be there or not is moot because nostalgia doesn’t actually remember; it teaches us how to generate memory through desire. And those memories are constructed whether we as Americans were stationed in Guadalcanal in ‘43 or reading this in 2021, because what we desire as a nation is the construction (the storytelling, the myth, the TALE) which becomes what we term “memory.” And so readers are reminded of their fathers and grandfathers in these tales, not because they accurately reflect their experiences in the Pacific (we can never know that -- and I don’t think they could, either) but because Michener was directing us to be reminded of them: showing us the “tales” that we desire (and those returning soldiers desired, as well) -- the tales they should have lived. As such, the fiction becomes the reality as it instructs us how to “remember” the great past that never was.

And so this may be one of the most “American” pieces of fiction of the 20th century...but not for the reasons lauded by the critics upon its release in 1947.
Profile Image for Carmen.
2,188 reviews
May 12, 2020
I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific. The way it actually was. The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we called islands. Coconut palms nodding gracefully toward the ocean. Reefs upon which waves broke into spray and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description. I wish I could tell you about the sweating jungle, the full moon rising behind the volcanoes, and the waiting. The waiting. The timeless, repetitive waiting.
Profile Image for Brian Fagan.
289 reviews62 followers
October 19, 2020
Are you up on GI slang? When you put a bunch of young men together in combat situations, the unity that is forged by protecting each other as a group can have some interesting side effects. One is a shared language. As I read James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific, I coincidently worked a crossword puzzle by Merl Reagle with a WWII GI Mess Hall Slang theme. See how many of these slang food words and phrases you know the original word for: (answer key below)

Sand and dirt

Ptomaine steak


Machine oil

Paint remover

Armored cow

Dog biscuits

Hot water


Battery acid

Gun wadding

Mystery plate



Rubber patches


Michener served as an aviation mechanic in WWII in the South Pacific from 1941 to 1943, and wrote Tales of the South Pacific in 1947, based on his experiences there. The startling contrast between the area's dazzling beauty and the horrors of war obviously lends itself to drama. I only knew the Rogers and Hammerstein musical version of South Pacific. When I read on the book jacket that it won the Pulitzer Prize I was stunned. After reading it I understand. First of all, timing probably had a lot to do with its commercial and critical success. What would appeal to readers more than a real-life chronicle of our men's day-to-day lives in the recent war? And the story drips with humanity. It explores heroism, fear of death, island fever (isolation psychology), religion, codes of honor, interracial love and racism.

I struggled a bit with the book's classification. I suppose the author determines whether to call something fiction or nonfiction. Even if names are changed, knowing that Michener lived these stories would suggest that we could look at this book as his memoir of his time there. Since it was classified as fiction, I have to assume he felt that he used significant artistic license to tweak the events.

The writing is often poignant:

"They will live a long time, these men of the South Pacific. They had an American quality. They, like their victories, will be remembered as long as our generation lives. After that, like men of the Confederacy, they will become strangers. Longer and longer shadows will obscure them, until their Guadalcanal sounds distant on the ear like Shiloh and Valley Forge."

Ironically, they live yet largely because of the Rogers and Hammerstein musical which, I would guess, is watched a thousand times more now than the book is read. Incidentally, those of you familiar with the musical version can discover in the book how Bloody Mary got her nickname. And I learned that the mysterious mists obscuring the small island of Bali Ha'i were not just a Hollywood special effect:

"It is a miracle of the South Pacific that islands which are relatively only a few miles away are rarely seen. Hot air, rising constantly from steaming jungles, makes omnipresent clouds hover above each island. So dense are they that usually they obscure and often completely hide the islands they attend."

Michener never ceased to be amazed by the heroism he found in everyday men. A dangerous mission was planned to land on and scout a small island crawling with Japanese soldiers. Volunteers were sought:

"Almost all of them said something like 'I hear you got a job,' or 'What's this about a job?' I have since learned that when the Japs want volunteers for something unduly risky, their officers rise and shout at the men about ancestors, emperors and glory. In the Seabees, at least, you sort of pass the word around, and pretty soon forty guys come ambling in with their hats in their hands, nervous like."

At the end, Michener tells of the time he visited a lonely cemetery for U. S. troops built on a lovely plateau overlooking the ocean. I had tears streaming down my face as I finished the book:

"A white picket fence surrounded the burial ground. From one corner rose a slim steel flagpole. From it fluttered an American flag. Because the air was so clean, the white stripes and the stars shone more beautifully than any I had ever seen before. Before me lay the dead, the heroic dead who took the island. Upon a strange plateau, on a strange island, in a strange sea, far from their farms and villages, they slept forever beside the lagoon which bore them to their day of battle. Over them the sea birds dipped in endless homage. Above them the deep sky erected a cathedral. I cannot put into words the emotions that captured me as I looked upon the graves of my friends."

At the cemetery, Michener met two Black American soldiers whose proud duty it was to tend the cemetery. They took tremendous pride in their job, and they had a story to tell about each man buried there.

Answer Key:

Sand and dirt = salt and pepper

Ptomaine steak = meatloaf

Shingle = toast

Machine oil = syrup

Paint remover = coffee

Armored cow = canned milk

Dog biscuits = crackers

Hot water = soup

Shrapnel = grape nuts

Battery acid = coffee

Gun wadding = bread

Mystery plate = hash

Ammunition = beans

Solvent = coffee

Rubber patches = pancakes

Transfusion = ketchup

Profile Image for Albert.
385 reviews26 followers
July 29, 2020
I had certain expectations prior to reading Tales of the South Pacific. I have read my share of war novels. I just couldn’t get excited about reading another one. Then there was Michener. I had read one of his novels many years ago, far enough in the past I couldn’t remember much, but I remembered not enjoying it. Finally, there was the musical and the movie. I generally like musicals, but not that one. So I put Tales of the South Pacific off for quite a while even though it was sitting there on my shelf.

Eventually I decided it was time. What I discovered was the best WWII novel that I think I have read to date. It is not a true novel, but a group of interrelated stories that progress sequentially in time and events with the war in the Pacific. Some characters appear in only one of the stories, Both others in multiple stories. Likewise, plot lines carry across stories, with a few running through many stories. The narrator in all the stories is “the Commander”, a character styled after the position and role Michener played in WWII.

What I enjoyed the most, though, is that the stories touch on many aspects of a war effort but that you rarely ever hear mentioned. There are the Seabees and their role in creating the facilities, in a very short time, required by the Navy and its personnel. There is the Supply function, necessary to keep such a huge organization functioning on a normal day but that becomes critical when preparing for and initiating an attack. My favorite story focused on turning an island controlled by the Japanese into a U.S. airbase in 15 days. Then there is the human element: the waiting, and more waiting, and what you do to keep yourself entertained between waiting and waiting.

I enjoy short stories and typically really enjoy interconnected short stories, so Tales of the South Pacific was a perfect fit. Together the stories provided a detailed and in-depth picture of what it takes to conduct a war and the impact a war effort has on the people residing in the war zone. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Profile Image for GymGuy.
300 reviews19 followers
July 23, 2013
I will agree with other reviewers that this is a must read for anyone interested in WWII history. I've read reviews where they thought this was a white-wash. First, remember that this won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1948. While a great part of Michener's novel is light-hearted, one should take into account that it was published in 1947, just 2 years after the end of the War. Like our military is reluctant to discuss the horrors of the Middle East wars, I'm sure Michener, being a veteran who had served as a Lt. Commander in the Pacific Theater, wanted to write something that was not just a rehash of the horrors he had just witnessed.

That being said, "Tales" is a loosely written chain of stories connected by common characters, time and place. If you are thinking this is going to be just the book version of the Broadway musical, it is not. The musical covers only about 3 of the stores: those concerning Nelly Forbush, Lt. Cable, Blood Mary and Luther Billis. The rest of the 15 or so stories deal with other richly developed characters that are just as compelling as these. Rogers and Hammerstein simply picked four out of many.

"Tales" is a rich feast of well-developed characters, stunning descriptions of beautiful coral lagoons and heart-felt stories of life, love, humor, death, heroism and the injustices of mortality. Much of the story is told through characters who are in land-based operations. Only at the end do we actually see an extended battle. The final chapter is a heart-wrenching realization of death and loss. With some characters we learn their fate. Others, as in life, are simply forgotten.
584 reviews26 followers
September 22, 2016
This novel starts a new book group year of reading "Pulitzers". It was not what I was expecting. Naive me did not realize that this is really a compilation of short stories. They weave together if you will for an overall effect of a real and devastating war...in which men lost lives and loves. There were not sections of "wash that man" humor depicted in the movie version of the book. This was a novel about patience...about sitting and waiting...often for years. Some chapters resounded with me more than others. I was grateful to be done with the military tactics and the combat. Much of this book deals with the "behind the combat scenes people". Michener supplies details and the book is filled with history. I'm glad I read it, but it was grueling (like the war it depicts).
Profile Image for Dwayne Roberts.
385 reviews41 followers
June 15, 2020
Delightful tales of life in the South Pacific with the backdrop of WWII. Very human stories, and, near the end, a horrific battle. Honor to the fallen. Honor to all the men, great and not.
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