World War II came late to the United States, and though the front never reached the American mainland, the effects of separation, preoccupation and loss are still reverberating. Gary Paulsen’s account of his wartime childhood and the brutal demolition of his innocence is no ordinary American rite of passage. Even for a war child, his was an extraordinary beginning to life and a terrible story to carry so long untold; it sheds considerable light on the themes of wilderness and survival he has treated so often in his young-adult novels (for which he has won three Newbery awards).
As a small child, Paulsen lived alone with his mother, a munitions worker, in Chicago. He knew his father only from photographs, an otherworldly figure in uniform, and he spent much of his time with an old woman who cared for him (between jugs of wine) while his mother was out. Right from the start it is clear that the world he has entered is an adult one; there are few allowances for children here, almost no buttress from the upheavals and gay desperations that war has produced at home.
Many evenings the small boy sits around in bars with his mother, who tries to work off her loneliness on crowds of men, and it isn’t long before he sees her as the sexual magnet she is. Attractive, temporarily unattached, she lives it up in her sad way, and he finds himself bought off by strangers, bribed for access in a way that becomes more than familiar as he grows. He knows he is loved, though. Indeed, he’s left without a doubt when his mother saves him from a molester whom she kicks half to death right in front of him.
“And when at last his hands quit moving and he lay still she aimed careful kicks at his temples, aimed perfect, almost dainty kicks with the hard steel toe of her work shoes until he didn’t move at all, and I looked up to see her eyes, then.”
This, more or less, is the tenor of Gary Paulsen’s childhood memories, and this is before he moves on to the war itself. His mother drinks more and more and brings strangers home, and the young boy walks in on her at terrible moments. Every scene is a shock, every memory an assault of some kind.
At the end of the war in the Pacific, the boy’s father announces that he is not coming home, and he summons them to join him in the Philippines. The voyage becomes adventure, ordeal and education, a premature expulsion from childhood. Quarantined with chickenpox on the long haul across the Pacific, Paulsen enters the exclusive world of men below decks. He lives by martial regimen, separated from his mother, and plays craps, sees beatings, hears the way the sailors and soldiers burn for his mother.
Then, in the most vivid and compelling scene, Paulsen witnesses the forced landing at sea of a planeload of women and children who are horribly mauled by sharks in plain view.
“The sharks were into them fully now, tearing at them, and one after another they went down. Some were being jerked at even when the boat arrived and Harding reached for them. And then I saw a woman. . . . The wing of the plane was awash, but still there was a little showing and the woman tried to put the baby on the wing so it would be safe and all the time the sharks were hitting her, jerking her down, and she kept putting the baby back on the wing, setting it there so it would be safe. But they took her, finally, took her down, and the baby rolled off the wing and they got the baby as well.”
His rendering of the torn, bleeding and shrieking survivors is harrowing, almost dreamlike in its detail, its delirious procession of events. For 18 hours he sees his mother and a sailor trying to save these poor wretches by whatever meager means they can. In the midst of ragged suturing and amputation, he sees an unlikely heroism in his mother who, for much of the story, is a spirited but self-absorbed figure.
After more misadventures, including a shipboard brawl over his mother, the young Paulsen finally arrives in Manila, where one war has ended and another begun. The reunion with his father is a disappointment. What the military has begun, the war has completed. The man is stiff, taciturn, almost automatic, and he seems no nearer than his photograph.
As his parents dissolve into a life of booze and bitchery, the boy retreats from them into the company and the world of the Filipino servants, whose calm and patience he learns from. It is in the Philippines, living an almost feral existence, that he comes closest to happiness, and then suddenly this life, too, is gone.
In its raw portrayal of a child thrown into the horrors of war and the adult world, this book reminds one of J.G. Ballard’s “Empire of the Sun.” But that book, having the scope of the novel, allows itself a little more amplitude, and as a result achieves a more lasting effect. For all its terrors, “Eastern Sun, Winter Moon” is a curiously unintrospective work. At times the narrator is forced to speak through his teeth, unable or unwilling to elaborate. There are no half-discoveries here, no inklings--only blasts. Only in the last lines of the book does the author give any clue as to the impact of all this shock and confrontation:
“I would grow and marry and remarry and remarry and join the army and drink into drunkenness and stop drinking . . . and I would have children and they would have children and none of it was over, not finished.
“And it never would be.”
It’s possible that in the current climate of psychobabble and retro-gush, Gary Paulsen felt it best to put up and shut up. Perhaps a childhood such as his needs no commentary, and his autobiography is no less powerful and dignified for its painful silences.