The Sand Pebbles

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Categories: Classic Literature
Publisher: RosettaBooks | Date published: 12/09/2002


Literary theorist Georg Lukács complains in his seminal work, The Historical Novel, that the works of imaginative literature too often use history as a mere backdrop, a way for an author to decorate the story and characters. Lukács singles out Sir Walter Scott, English author of such works as Ivanhoe and the Waverly novels, as a notable exception. According to Lukács Scott's novels document, with painstaking verisimilitude, the character of the historical period in which the action is taking place, and, as a result, treat history as more than just mere scenery. One feels that Lukács might make a similar exception for Richard McKenna, whose award-winning 1962 novel, The Sand Pebbles, has often been compared to Scott's classic novels. Set aboard an American gunship patrolling the Yangtze river on the eve of revolution in China, The Sand Pebbles is rich in detail drawn from McKenna's meticulous research as well as his firsthand experiences of China as a member of the U.S. Navy. As a spirit of nationalism inspired by Chiang Kai-shek's leadership begins to sweep through China, the river gunship San Pablo is ordered to patrol the region and protect U.S. citizens. The crew of the ship is soon drawn into an international conflict as the Chinese Nationalists begin trying to expel the "foreign devils" from their shores. The conflict will not only illustrate the divide between east and west but also provoke a divide among the members of the crew itself. What The Sand Pebbles also has in common with the truly great historical novels of the past is that its wealth of regional and historical detail is never allowed to overwhelm the story or the characters. The protagonist of McKenna's novel is Jake Holman, a machinist aboard the San Pablo who has joined the Navy in order to avoid jail time. Fiercely independent, Jake remains something of a loner aboard the San Pablo, uncomfortable with Naval protocol and discipline. It is his rebellious spirit that animates much of McKenna's novel. His independent-mindedness chafes against military hierarchy, and helps ensure that he does not share his shipmates' disdain for the Chinese. Instead, he is fascinated with the culture and the people that surround him and develops emotional bonds that will prove difficult to manage when circumstances turn tumultuous and more dire. The perspective of The Sand Pebbles is therefore both panoramic and personal. Like Lawrence of Arabia, the great tension explored here is between the individual and the vast matrix of social and historical forces within which he finds himself. The Sand Pebbles was also made into a 1966 movie of the same name starring Steve McQueen.

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