MARCH 18, 1945
We are going to bring it to him, the Colonel said with satisfaction.
Fire. This is what you’ve got to look forward to.
This is what he’s got to look forward to.
Tokyo is going to remember us.
We were close to the bomb line… there was that tension you always feel…when the time comes close to drop. Major Sorbo circles us…and I could see two fires [below us]…where we had hit the city.
The next thing was not fire, though later I realized…had fire in it…The inside of the plane had exploded…Then the nose went down, and I knew we were completely gone; everyone on the flight deck was probably dead. The first thing [I felt] was the cold. There’d been a loud pop, a crack like a rifle, and I was sure I had been hit…the chute was open. [As I floated closer to the ground], the smoke came past me. [I landed and thought], I am now in the land of my enemy. (Sergeant Muldrow, B-29 Tailgunner)
Like every good bibliophile, I cannot pass a stack of books at a garage sale without stopping. I was surprised and intrigued to find To The White Sea by James Dickey. I knew about Deliverance but I didn’t realize that he wrote other novels; he usually hung out in the library in the 20th Century American poetry section.
The book is a one-man show. Sergeant Muldrow’s story in the opening chapters felt a little stilted as we were given his “Naked and Afraid” background in specific detail. The man has survived on his wits and skills since early childhood with only his “Jeremiah Johnson” father for company in the harsh Brooks Range of Alaska. He operated under one theory – trust no one -ever. Expect the worst to happen any second and always be prepared.
High above Japan, the puffy clouds reminded Muldrow of arctic mountains in Alaska where everything is a sea of white. To survive in that environment requires camouflage; like the snowshoe rabbit, you must become invisible. As he escapes the burning plane and parachutes toward a fiery hell on the ground he faces certain death if captured, he has become the prey. Like the rabbit, he must adapt.
His first days on the ground were pure hell as he blended into the city’s fiery devastation; being a part of the exodus yet always aware of his status – the enemy. He takes account of the Army issued survival kit and finds a silk topo layout of Japan leading north to Hokkaido – cold, mountains, snow. He knows where he must go.
The middle chapters take Muldrow further and further away from Tokyo into the poverty stricken farmlands. As he gains confidence, he is transitioning into a solo predator. Like any beast of prey, he glides seamlessly through the countryside, always on the lookout, always prepared to kill to meet his immediate needs – clothing, food, shelter – always changing his outward appearance to match the locals. Never concerned, never giving a thought to the hapless souls lying dead in his wake.
To The White Sea is a dark story filled with graphic violence. As Muldrow enters isolated and wild land areas, he encounters kindred souls seeking solitude and a reclusive lifestyle. He spent time with them, learning new skills like sewing winter clothing from skins. But in the end, when their usefulness was exhausted, he dispassionately murdered them and moved on.
In the final pages, Muldrow, for the very first time, expresses the slightest bit of humanity and regret. He has made it to the white sea and made a friend of an old man. Together they live in a ramshackle shack hunting daily with the old man’s trained eagles. Life is good. . .until. The day he has expected all his life has arrived. The sounds outside confirm the hunt is over.
It was my time now. I laid my knife in the snow and stood up straight. They fired . . .and the whole ridge sparked and crackled. A bullet went through me but didn’t touch me. It was happening.. . .I made it to where I wanted to be. . . The snow came back . . .and I will be everywhere in it from now on.
Was this suicide by soldier? Did he mean for death to find him under his own terms?
To The White Sea never garnered the support of Dickey’s first book, Deliverance. Overall, I found it impossible to connect to a man completely hollow of morality. His life is a devolution from civilized man to beast of prey; a dispassionate killer.
The intense descriptions of war and the depth of Muldrow’s inhumanity left me feeling ill. On the other hand, the beauty and silence of winter filled me with peace.
Read it if you are into the dark part of a man’s soul.