Source of Book: I own this. Purchased used as a library discard
Most people know of Hersey from his unforgettable non-fiction work, Hiroshima, which still stands as an extraordinary work of journalism. It is unlikely that any one person affected our perception of atomic an nuclear weaponry more than he did. Furthermore, journalistic writing today continues to imitate his style and aspire to his impact.
Hiroshima was effective for two reasons. First, the subject itself made for a compelling story. Second, Hersey chose to write the story in clear, stripped down prose, consciously avoiding sensationalism. Instead, he let the horror of the facts themselves tell the story – perhaps one of the best cases of the writer getting out of his own way.
It would not be much of a stretch to claim that Hersey is partially responsible for the fact that the cold war never became thermonuclear. Both sides were left with a lingering fear that has never left. In addition, we all remember the name Hiroshima. Fewer remember Nagasaki, which is a shame, because it was bombed on my birthday, August 9.
(Odd digression: August 9 is not an auspicious date. In addition to numerous trifling battles over the centuries, it was also the date of the Charles Manson murders, Nixon’s resignation, and the trade of Wayne Gretzky . On the plus side, the Sistine Chapel was opened on that date, and Thomas Edison got his patent for the two-way telegraph. Not that you really wanted to know all that. You’re welcome anyway.)
In addition to Hiroshima, I became acquainted with Hersey through another non-fiction work, Life Sketches, published late in his life in 1989. This book is worth seeking out for its essays on John F. Kennedy, Sinclair Lewis, Henry Luce, and others.
I decided to try some of Hersey’s fiction. A Single Pebble is best described as a short novel. Like his non-fiction, it is written in a spare, compact manner. Hersey preferred the shorter form to the longer as a general rule, and kept his narrative directly on point. In essence, this book is a short story on a larger scale.
Hersey was born in China to missionary parents. He learned Mandarin before he learned English, but came to the United States when he was ten years old. Thus, it was natural that this book was set in China in the 1920s. The protagonist is a young engineer sent to survey the Yangtze River for a possible dam site. He travels by Junk, hauled upstream by human power alone. Called “Trackers”, these persons were paid a pittance in exchange for brutally hard work, danger, and the knowledge that they were as more expendable than the cargo on the ship.
Hersey keeps his character list short. There is the engineer who narrates the story in the first person. The old and cynical owner of the junk is married to a much younger wife, who is in love with the head tracker, nicknamed “Old Pebble” despite his youth. The engineer also comes to have feelings for the young wife, making this not a love triangle, but a love tetrahedron, perhaps. Finally, there is the cook, who would like to own the boat, and seems to dislike everyone.
One of the things Hersey does well in this book is strike a balance between the East and the West. Many modern authors have a tendency to romanticize ancient cultures and methods. Thus, they would mourn the loss of the old ways in China, and vilify the West for bringing modern technology and its benefits. Conversely, the Victorian author would consider the Chinaman to be a savage, lacking the essential humanity of the civilized European. Both extremes are avoided deftly by Hersey, as he allows his protagonist to wrestle with both points of view.
Hersey’s experience in China gives him an understanding of the culture, which in turn causes his Chinese characters to be recognizably human, despite the cultural differences. As the engineer (who is never given a name) interacts with the others, they become to the engineer and to the reader complex and sympathetic characters. His own prejudice and clumsy interpersonal skills cause sparks, and ultimately contribute in a small way to the tragedy that ensues.
On the other hand, Hersey does not sugar coat the problems with the ancient ways. We tend to forget in this era of multiculturalism that throughout most of history and most cultures, the poor were considered more expendable than animals. In this case, the work that we now do with machines was done directly by humans. By humans thought of as sub-persons. Should a tracker fall in the river and drown, well, there were thousands waiting at the next village.
In this respect, the engineer’s goal is noble. If the river is dammed, it could prevent the destructive floods that formerly killed hundreds of thousands in a bad year. Likewise, the river would be more safely navigable, and there would be no need for the trackers to be worked harder than any animal.
This tension underlies the well written narrative. Hersey chooses not to resolve the issue in the end. The narrator, like the reader, is left with food for thought, but no clear idea of the “right” decision.
In this, Hersey has certainly been justified by history. The Three Gorges dam was completed as envisioned by the engineer in 2006. It has inspired controversy both in and out of China. Its effects have been both positive and negative. Only time will tell which will prevail in the long term.
Aspiring writers would do well to read Hersey as an example of doing more with less. His works, both fiction and non-fiction, show that writing can be both clear and deep. He also, like Henry James, demonstrates that the short novel fills a niche and can achieve something that neither the long novel nor the short story are suited to do.
Everyone should read Hiroshima, preferably at various ages. A Single Pebble likewise induces thought, and can be recommended for a short, if not exactly light, read.