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Literature / Tales of the South Pacific

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"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 towards 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."

Tales of the South Pacific is a 1948 short story collection by James Michener.

The setting is Des Moines, Iowa—no, just kidding, the South Pacific, namely the area around the Cook Islands and the Solomon Islands, in the years 1942-1944 during World War II. The nineteen stories in the collection are narrated by an unnamed "Commander" who is an avatar for James Michener, who served in Real Life as a U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander in the New Hebrides islands. The stories are loosely connected, with several characters appearing in more than one, and also by a plot thread about American plans for a fictional "Operation Alligator" against the Japanese. The emphasis is on the long, long periods of boredom between the occasional bloody assault, and how the Americans in the south Pacific interact with the natives, other locals, and each other.


This story collection is largely forgotten in latter days, but two of the stories therein, "Fo' Dolla'" and "Our Heroine", were adapted into the much better-remembered musical South Pacific.


  • Author Avatar: The "Commander" is is basically James Michener, spinning tales inspired by his own experiences and from the anecdotes he heard while serving in the navy.
  • Buxom Is Better: In "Fo' Dolla'", Joe Cable notes Liat's beautiful breasts when they make love for the first time. Later, Jacques the gross French planter who is marrying Liat makes the "hourglass" gesture as he's bragging about her.
  • Cabin Fever: Island fever, in "Dry Rot", which discusses the various ways in which people start wigging out after spending months and months on end on a remote island or small atoll somewhere.
  • Christmas Episode: "Wine for the Mess at Sugi", in which Tony Fry, the Commander, and Dr. Benoway go on an odyssey of thousands of miles across the ocean, from island to island, in search of some liquor for Christmas.
  • Continuity Nod: Many as stories are loosely connected, and characters like Tony Fry and Lt. Harbison pop up in multiple stories.
    • In "Our Heroine" the French plantation owner mentions meeting a man named Anderson on Malaita. That's a nod to previous story "The Cave" in which Anderson is The Voice, having stayed behind after the Japanese captured Malaita, radioing intelligence to the Allies from the jungle.
    • Lt. Harbison the dishonest American officer is introduced in "An Officer and a Gentleman", where he romances two nurses before rejecting them both. "Our Heroine" mentions both nurses before focusing on one, Nellie, who finds real love elsewhere. That story also mentions how Harbison went down in the Pacific when a supply plane crashed, only to be rescued from a lifeboat by an American ship. Later story "Passion" mentions both Harbison and a doctor who was on the crashed plane, who remembers the story in greater detail.
    • In "Our Heroine" Emile mentions that his oldest daughter Latouche is married to another planter and lives on a different island. In "Wine for the Mess at Sugi", Tony Fry and the gang stop at that island and meet Latouche.
    • The last story, "A Cemetery at Hoga Point", mentions that Joe Cable from "Fo' Dolla'" was killed in the assault on Kuralei.
  • Death Seeker: Implied with the death of Joe Cable, who rejected Liat the Vietnamese girl in "Fo' Dolla'". Cable, described as "pretty heartsick" and "fed up with things in general", charges the Japanese recklessly at Kuralei, until he's eventually killed.
  • Dirty Coward: Lt. Harbison, who talks a big game about fighting the Japanese, until it's time to actually make the landing at Kuralei. He gets himself a psychiatric discharge.
  • Downer Ending: Both Joe Cable and Tony Fry are killed in Operation Alligator. The last story finds the narrator in a graveyard, contemplating all the men fallen in battle, and wondering how the country will ever make up for the good men lost.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: In "The Strike", the Torpex, an ammunition ship, pulls into port at the supply depot. One night it explodes, killing everyone aboard. The only survivors are two enlisted men in the infirmary, and four of the officers who were dining at the club when the ship blew up. Two of them spend the rest of the night getting blind drunk.
  • Fatal Family Photo: In flashback. But when the Torpex explodes in "The Strike", one of the Torpex officers recounts how the captain once opened up his wallet and showed the officer a picture of his 15-year-old daughter back home.
  • Historical Domain Character: The author recalls meeting various famous people, such as Admiral Halsey and Admiral John McCain (grandfather to Sen. John McCain).
  • Indentured Servitude: With a side dose of Evil Colonialist. The Tonkinese (that is, Vietnamese) workers on the French plantation in "Fo' Dolla'" are indentured servants, brought to the island to harvest cocoanuts and whatnot. So the French colonialist planters do not like it one little bit when the workers discover they can make more money selling grass skirts to American servicemen than they do working the plantations.
  • Japanese Ranguage: The Japanese soldiers who finally uncover an American observation post behind enemy lines say "American peoper! You die!" Then they destroy the radio set. (Short story "The Cave".)
  • Kissing Cousins: In "Mutiny", the narrator travels to isolated Norfolk Island to see about the construction of an airstrip. Fry, the Navy officer who welcomes him to Norfolk, tells him that the residents of Norfolk are descendants of the mutineers from HMAV Bounty. Due to their extreme isolation the people on Norfolk have been marrying each other ever since they arrived.
    Fry: The mutineers have been intermarrying for more than a hundred years. I guess they're all a little nuts.
  • Let Off by the Detective: Emile's backstory, as recounted in "Our Heroine". The reason he is living on a remote South Pacific plantation is that he killed a man back in France. But because the man he killed was a bastard who needed killing, the local cops let him off the hook. They deliberately waited three days to come to arrest him, by which time Emile had fled to Marseilles. After the cops discovered he was in Marseilles, they waited four more days until he boarded his ship for the Pacific, only putting up wanted posters after Emile was safely away.
  • Life Will Kill You: In "Dry Rot", a soldier named Joe falls in love with a girl named Alice back in the States, all via mail. He is heartbroken to hear that she was killed in a car accident.
  • Moral Guardians: In "Passion", both Lt. Harbison and Dr. Benoway are very concerned when, while censoring sailors' mail, they run across an extremely pornographic letter from a sailor to his wife. The sailor himself is quite confused when Dr. Benoway calls him in for a talk, pointing out that the woman is his wife and there's nothing wrong with writing her a sex letter.
  • The Münchausen: "Passion" recounts how Lt. Harbison and Dr. Benoway went on a flight to a supply depot to pick up fresh vegetables for the men on the base. The plane suffered engine failure, the pilot had to ditch, and they were left in a life raft for four days before they were rescued. Dr. Benoway gets a look at Lt. Harbison's letter home and is appalled to read how he described their adventure. Harbison tells his wife in the letter that they went on a dangerous combat mission, they were shot down by Japanese fighter planes, and they were in the life raft for fifteen days before they were rescued.
  • Narrator: An unnamed narrator recounts most of the stories.
  • National Geographic Nudity: The French authorities in the area have sequestered all the women of the islands on the island of Bali-hai, so the Allied servicemen in the islands can't rape them. Lt. Joe Cable has occasion to visit Bali-hai, and is bowled over by the sight of dozens of topless Polynesian and Asian women. ("Fo' Dolla'")
  • The Neidermeyer: Captain Kelley, the officer in charge of the supply depot for Operation Alligator. He is a nasty petty tyrant in true Niedermeyer tradition, forbidding the sailors from playing games, making everyone stop wearing ball caps. The men start making joes about Captain Bligh and the Bounty. ("The Strike")
  • No One Gets Left Behind: "The Milk Run" is narrated by a pilot who crashes in a channel between two Japanese-held islands. He's left bobbing in the channel, kept afloat by his life vest, subject to rifle fire from each shore. An enormous effort to rescue him ensues. First a whole squadron of P-40s strafe the Japanese positions. Then a flight of Marine F4Us, on the direct order of an admiral, strafe the Japanese and drop the pilot a life raft. Then a PBY amphibious plane attempts to rescue him but gets shot up and sunk by the Japanese, leaving the crew of the PBY adrift in the channel with him. Still more waves of fighters assault the Japanese islands to protect the Americans in the channel. Finally two PT boats show up and rescue the pilot and the PBY crew. The pilot eventually totals things up and concludes that the Navy lost a P-40 fighter, lost a PBY, used up the available operational hours of several fighter squadrons, altered operational plans after diverting the PT boats, and spent over $600,000, all to rescue him.
  • Officer and a Gentleman: "An Officer and a Gentleman" actually subverts this in the case of Lt. Harbison, who emotionally manipulates and then rejects two nurses on their island outpost. (And later stories further underline Harbison's personality as a drunkard, a coward, and a liar.)
  • Operation: [Blank]: Operation Alligator, the fictional attack on a Japanese-held island, is a recurring plot element throughout the stories.
  • Separated by a Common Language: In "Coral Sea", the Americans manning a remote observation post laugh when an officer from New Zealand lands on the island and introduces himself as Flight 'Leftenant' Grant. They later mock his turns of phrase like "Hop to it, lads!"
  • Shrunken Head: In "Fo' Dolla'", Joe Cable is startled when his gift of three bolts of silk cloth to a native results in the native giving Joe a shrunken head. (In Real Life shrunken heads were a South American thing and the practice was not observed in the South Pacific).
  • Stepping Out for a Quick Cup of Coffee: In "Dry Rot", the CO of the dinky little island sets out a bottle of whiskey, says Joe the enlisted man is not to take a drink from it, and then says he's going to take a walk for 20 minutes. He comes back 20 minutes later and is astonished to find that the supremely innocent Joe didn't pick up on his hint and didn't help himself to any whiskey.
  • Sudden Downer Ending: "The Airstrip at Konora" is about Commader Hoag leading a frantic race to complete said airstrip in time for the scheduled flight of bombers to land on the island. In the last paragraph of the story, after the airstrip has been completed and the bombers are landing, a Japanese soldier hiding in the jungle dashes out and kills himself and Cdr. Hoag with a grenade.
  • Switching P.O.V.: Most of the stories are narrated by the unnamed commander, but not all. "The Milk Run" is narrated by Lt. Bus Adams, who's telling his story to the commander. Some stories are straight third-person omniscient, like "Our Heroine". And sometimes the commander, while narrating in first person, somehow lurches into third-person omniscient, like when he's describing the thought processes of the clever Japanese officer trying to repel the American landing.
  • Title Drop Chapter: The first story, a brief prologue in which the narrator thinks back to all the whimsical people he met in the exotic south Pacific, is titled "The South Pacific".
  • Thematic Series: Each story is paired with another story at the opposite end of the narrative. The first and nineteenth stories are the narrator reflecting on his experience. The second and eighteenth involve battles, the third and seventeenth involve preparation for battles. The ninth and eleventh stories both revolve around American servicemen writing letters back to women in the States. The story in the middle, tenth story "Fo' Dolla'", is unpaired.
  • War Is Hell: The climactic Operation Alligator, recounted in next-to-last story "The Landing on Kuralei", in which the Americans take the island but with ghastly casualties. The commander's friend Tony Fry, a kind and generous person who pops up as a character in several stories, is killed.

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