Title: Beside a Burning Sea
Author: John Shors
Genre: Historical fiction
Publisher: New American Library
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Source: Print copy from my own library
First line: Ten minutes before a torpedo sliced through the sea and slammed into steel, most everything was normal aboard the U.S. hospital ship Benevolence.
Beside a Burning Sea by John Shors reminded me that I love historical fiction. The US Benevolence is a hospital ship in the South Pacific during World War II. When torpedoes sink the ship, nine survivors swim to a nearby, uninhabited island. Joshua is the captain of the ship, devastated over the loss of his crew. His wife, Isabelle, her sister, Annie, and another woman, Scarlett, are nurses. Annie is weak from a recent bout with malaria, and only makes it to the island because of her patient, a Japanese prisoner of war named Akira. Nathan is an officer who only wants to get home to his family. Jake is an African-American enlisted man who has become a surrogate father to young Ratu, a Fijian boy who stowed away on the ship to look for his father, who is working as a guide to American troops. The last survivor is Roger, another American soldier, and the rest of the group has no idea that he is the one who betrayed them to their enemies.
Beside a Burning Sea is character-based historical fiction, which I love. I love sweeping epics, too, but I love the way this book takes a time in history – World War II – and distills it down to the experiences of nine people. The book takes place over the course of only eighteen days, and yet aptly tackles topics like marriage, parenting, prejudice, child abuse, violence, responsibility, and fear.
Though there are nine characters, the book focuses on three main relationships: the marital relationship between Joshua and Isabelle, the growing relationship between Annie and Akira, and the friendship between Big Jake and Ratu. I loved all three relationships, but especially loved the way Annie and Akira discovered each other, and the thread of poetry that ran through their storyline. Each chapter begins with a haiku from Akira’s perspective, and they are all beautiful and profound.
Shors’ strength obviously lies in writing character and in understanding people, no matter their heritage or background. I loved so many of these characters – and hated Roger, who was a truly chilling villain. I am so glad that he has other books already published – he is definitely an author I will seek out.