The Eagle’s Claw: A Novel of the Battle of Midway, by Jeff Shaara

Eight stars

While I was never one to get excited about war, there’s something about Jeff Shaara and his writing that always invigorates me. It could be that I come away with a new perspective, no matter the story, or that Shaara breathes new life into battles and maneuvers that have long since been presented in history books, but the pieces of fictionalised military history always seem to pull me toward them, no matter who is front and centre. This is another novel set in the Pacific Theatre of the Second World War, where the Japanese have recently bombed Pearl Harbor. The Americans are still reeling from it, unsure where to point all the fingers of blame, though they must be careful. The Japanese are not resting on their laurels at all, knowing full well that the American enemy is far from permanently crippled. However, perhaps one key strike at Midway could truly bring the giant to its knees, but it will have to be executed precisely and in complete secret. June 4th, 1942 was the Battle of Midway and what a skirmish it was! Shaara is brilliant in his writing again and fans of his work, or war history with a slight fiction twist will love this piece as well!

The attack on Pearl Harbor was like nothing the Americans could have expected. As the country and its military reels at the surprise attack, America must dust itself off and face an enemy that fights in ways European militaries have never considered. Sly, cunning, and without bluster, the Americans face Japan and its slow, yet methodical, military forces that seek to claim control of the seas and the Pacific with a deliberate attack system, based on surprise.

While the Americans refuse to bow down in the Spring of 1942, they are unsure of what to expect from their new foe. Peering out along the Pacific, Japan has already claimed much of the Asian islands and is inching towards Hawaii. This is less the aggressive tactics of the Nazis, but could be equally as troubling, when US ships and planes have nowhere they can be safe on the open waters.

The Japanese refuse to relax after a successful attack on Pearl Harbor. They seek to keep making their presence known and have utilised some key military planning to choose their next target, in hopes of drawing the Americans into battle. It will have to be both a surprise and calculated, using codes that the Americans could never decipher. Key military commanders have an idea, choosing the island of Midway, but it will not simply fall because someone wishes it. This will have to be calculated and thoroughly planned to ensure success.

Clashes between these two military giants have been ongoing, with submarines lurking below and eyeing the battleship and aircraft carriers, making sure to strike when the need arises. However, the battle is not always below the waters, as Navy pilots are scanning the skies and military men scan radio transmissions as well, all in an effort to report to their higher-ups to receive new orders in this game of chess that is being played in a methodical manner, much different than the land battled in Europe around the same time.

As both sides inch closer, the prowess of the Japanese is key, with their tactical leaders and determination. However, it will be an American code breaker who learns of the plan and ensures those in leadership (and in the region) are able to prepare for the attack. What follows is not only a battle of military might, but wits and patience, as both sides fight for their survival in a clash that many have said turned the tide of things in the Pacific theatre. Told with sensational detail and using wonderful characters, Jeff Shaara proves that he is a master in the genre and readers with an interest in military history will surely devour this, even if the end result has been renounced many times before.

One need not be obsessed with the military to enjoy these stories, though an interest in battle and movement of troops and tactical efforts surely helps. Shaara takes these battles that have been key to American military growth and breathes a new life into them, creating characters who live them. It is a ‘now you are here’ approach that allows the reader to feel a part of the action, while still being surrounded with names and locations that may be familiar to them from history texts and recounting of key skirmishes during wartime. I love it and it truly teaches me while entertaining in equal measure.

As with many of his books, Shaara mixes actual historical figures with invented characters. This enriches the book and keeps it exciting for the reader, while also permitting constructed dialogue that may or may not have happened. Shaara’s approach to look at both sides and utilise plots in both military camps helps to give a well-roundedness to the story, adding depth and intrigue. By providing actual historical context in the Afterward, Shaara permits the reader to see where fact met fiction with all those who played a meaningful role in the story itself.

I knew little about Midway and even less about many of the men who starred in this piece, but Jeff Shaara made sure I did not leave with the same misunderstandings. His rich delivery of history in an exciting manner left me excited and wanting more, never worried about missing a key part of the narrative. Told from many perspectives, Shaara makes sure the story is thoroughly recounted from all angles, never siding with one group over the other. Each chapter is rich with information, both of the military manoeuvres and those actors involved in things, to the point that the reader can see how much angst and struggle went into the decisions and that this was not simply two sides, hungry for blood and seeking to destroy the other in a sick game. Shaara has always been my go-to for military history with a personal touch and that has not changed. I am happy to invest my time and efforts into his writing. I eagerly await what else he has in store for his large collection of fans.

Kudos, Mr. Shaara, for another winner. You dazzle like no author I’ve known in the genre and I appreciate it greatly.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

To Wake the Giant: A Novel of Pearl Harbor, by Jeff Shaara

Nine stars

A long-time fan of Jeff Shaara and his work, I was ecstatic when I received his latest novel. These pieces of historical fiction are firmly in the military realm, bringing voices and strong narratives to famous battles fought throughout the American experience. This latest piece is all about the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the Japanese brought the Americans out of their isolationism and into the forefront of the Second World War. As with all of Shaara’s pieces, the narrative is split into numerous perspective, in this case: a lowly Navy recruit with a love of baseball (Tommy Biggs), the US Secretary of State who has been juggling increasing reports about Japanese plans for aggression (Cordell Hull), and the man who planned the Pearl Harbor attack (Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto). Biggs comes from a small town in Florida and decides to visit a Navy recruiter on a whim, only to discover that life on the seas may be the fresh approach that he seeks. After Basic Training, Biggs is assigned to the USS Arizona, where his eyes are opened to life in the Navy. While it can be tough, there is also the down time during which he can play baseball and discover what cheap beer and mouthy Marines can add to his life experiences. In Washington, Secretary Hull has been trying to balance an isolationist America against a president who is itching to getting the fight, worried that Britain and France will soon be subsumed by the tyrant, Hitler. All the while, Hull begins to hear grumblings that the Japanese have been discussing goading the Americans into the Pacific fight, hoping to scare them into a quick submission. As tensions mount, Hull gets no clear message from the Japanese ambassador, making things all the more suspect in this geo-political game of chess. Finally, in Tokyo, Admiral Yamamoto is a powerful man within the Japanese Navy and has been concocting an idea that might pull the Americans out of their isolation, only to feel the wrath of the Japanese, who have been spreading their tentacles all throughout the Asian theatre and flexing their muscle. When Yamamoto decides to strike off the Hawaiian coast, he hopes to take out large numbers of the Navy’s fleet and create such chaos so as to scare the political giant. In the latter portion of the book, as the plan to attack inches forward, all three protagonists react in their own ways, including just after the bombs fall. That this event will impact history is without doubt, though the way in which it does so, in the immediate aftermath, is something that Shaara explores with the reader in great detail. Full of all emotions there are, Shaara pulls the reader into this over that takes place over a single 12 month period. Chilling and yet unputdownable at the same time, Jeff Shaara proves why he is the master of this genre and a man that all those with a love of history (particularly military) need to find this book for their reading pleasure.

I am the first to admit that Shaara and his father helped introduce me to military history told with a fictional flavouring, thereby making it a tad more palatable to someone who is not keen on guns and troop movements. Shaara takes the events in history and breathes life into them, while telling some of the better known aspects and adding some gems from his research. The greatest part of the novel is the introduction of characters and dialogue, which adds a dimension and allows the layperson to love the story just as much as those who know the intricacies of the history and military movements. Choosing a simple American boy to offer the reader that ‘wet behind the ears’ perspective is masterful, injecting a naive approach to war and the evils of it all. Then layering two strong men whose accomplishments brought about the power that both America and Japan showed helps to give depth to the seriousness of these events, and the diplomatic to and fro that took place. Shaara wastes little time in the book, offering a rotating narrative and filling the reader with needed information as the story progresses, pushing some of his theories and perspectives he discovered throughout his research. With a mix of short and longer chapters, the reader is able to see how these twelve months were so important in bringing the US into the Second World War, as well as how quickly things changed. I would venture to say that much of the ‘fiction’ offered to this book comes from the dialogue, which must have been at least partially invested. Otherwise, this is a history heavy book that is easily read and loved by all. There is even the usual afterward, which pulls some of the characters out of the book and provides true biographies of what happened to them, if only to whet the appetite of the curious reader. While Shaara had originally promised readers a book on the Cuban Missile Crisis (unless I misread some of the publicity than emerged a few months after Shaara’s last publication), that may have been placed on the back burner to offer this sensational novel, making the longer wait worth it. Brilliant and captivating seem too little to describe this piece, but I will use them for now. Makes me debate if I want to spend a month and binge all of Shaara’s work to feel this energy again.

Kudos, Mr. Shaara, for your brilliance and passion with storytelling. I hope others find the love for your writing that I, a mere Canadian, have found.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

The Frozen Hours: A Novel of the Korean War, by Jeff Shaara

Nine stars

Shaara returns with another blockbuster piece of war fiction that is sure to impress many. Turning away from many of the well-documented wars and battles that fill school textbooks, Shaara creates a well-balanced story about the Korean War, nicknamed the ‘Forgotten War’. It becomes apparent early on why this was a war that many forgot about or do not adequately understand. Originally a United Nations effort to return North Korea to their geographic borders, events soon became quite America-centred, with UN (read: mostly US) forces being controlled by General Douglas MacArthur. Admittedly, MacArthur spent most of his time in the theatre’s home base, over in Tokyo. Shaara offers up three strong character perspectives in the novel, allowing the reader to learn more about the two sides involved and the advances made (as well as the retreats that became necessary) throughout the 1950 segment of fighting, which proves interesting as a snapshot for the overall conflict. What began as an attempt to help the South Koreans soon became the first test of Cold War politics. North Korea was happy to turn to its ideological and political ally, China, to assist with defending their outposts and keeping the Americans at bay. In an era when China was still a new force (the attentive reader will remember that Mao only surged the victory the year before, creating Red China), there was certainly a Soviet presence in the area, if only as observers and major weapons suppliers. The Korean Conflict could easily have turned into World War III, had cooler heads not prevailed, turning the Peninsula into an ideological battleground with both sides thirsty to repel others and in full possession of the Bomb. Shaara illustrates the battles and bloodshed, but is intentionally slow to introduce the enemy of both sides; the weather. Deemed the coldest winter in four decades, the battles fought had the added struggle of bitterly cold weather, which is the most unpredictable and vicious of foes. Guns that would not fire, oil that turned to sludge, and limbs that succumbed to various forms of frostbite pepper the narrative, as they surely did the landscape. While both sides were used to battles in more temperate climates, not being able to cover limbs effectively only added to the horrors. Limbs were frozen to gun barrels, toes came off when socks could be removed, leaving soldiers destroyed and armies decimated. The only small blessing came from wounds that froze before they could kill a soldier. Encapsulating that first year of the war, Shaara does not seek to clearly delineate the war in its totality, but the powerful narrative gives reader a strong sense of what transpired, perhaps in hopes of making this war a little less forgotten. Brilliantly crafted, with a mix of historical accuracies and personalized fiction, Shaara shows the reader why he is the master of the genre. Perfect for the curious reader that finds pleasure in historical fiction, particularly of the war variety. 

Any reader who has a long relationship with Jeff Shaara and his war-fiction will be enthralled with this piece. Those who might be expecting some light-humoured M*A*S*H* episode best look elsewhere, for these novels seek to get to the core of the battles. Steering away from the electoral and military politics of the War, Shaara seeks to focus on those who played a daily and key role in the war efforts. Shaara keeps mention of General MacArthur and President Truman to a minimum, but presents the soldiers as the most important players in Korea. General Oliver P. Smith allows the reader to see some of the military insights of a commander in the field. Smith was not sure what to expect, though likely no American forces really knew what to expect on the Korean Peninsula. As Smith sought to advance the troops, he discovered that there were many enemies that lay before him, the terrain being but one. Private Pete Riley represents that military character that Shaara likes to pepper into each of his novels; the ‘wet behind the ears’ newbie who does not know what to expect. It is during the novel that Riley is able to shed his peach fuzz and become a man, both on the battlefield and in life. Shaara shows Riley’s development and the sobering experiences he faces as he learns the horrors of war, pairing the loss of friends with that unknown enemy, the weather. To offer a well-rounded narrative, Chinese General Sung Shi-lun plays a central role and his narrative voice emerges throughout. Shaara effectively utilizes Sung and the entire Chinese Army effectively in the novel, exemplifying a completely different mindset to war. As mentioned before, Mao’s Red China was still fresh in the minds of many who arrived in Korea and the feel of the gun barrel remained a calloused sense to many of these soldiers. Where the two sides differed greatly, besides being somewhat ready for the frigid temperatures (though Shaara does show that the Chinese struggled greatly as well), is the inner momentum to win. While the Americans are fighting for glory and dominance, the Chinese appear to have a sense of seeking to please Mao and upholding the communist ideal. Shaara weaves this throughout the fight and shows how military hierarchy pushed the “Mao factor” onto the soldiers, who soon fell into line. This brilliant contrast allows Shaara to show yet another layer of the war, one that is likely not clearly delineated in textbooks or superficial narratives. Pulling all of this together, Shaara masters his arguments and leaves the reader wishing there were more. History has much more to offer on this war, though Shaara opens the novel commenting that he is not clearly tying himself down to a trilogy at this time, though there is surely room for it, should time and interest permit. And with Shaara, there is no doubt that if he chooses to return, it will be yet another stellar novel.

Kudos, Mr. Shaara for entertaining and educating in equal measure. I cannot tell you how excited I am whenever I see you have published something else. This was another piece of pure gold and I hope many find time to pick it up for themselves.