A tropical island that's no paradise
It is impossible to read John Shors' second novel (after Beneath a Marble Sky) without thinking what a great movie it would make. Beside a Burning Sea is wonderfully cinematic, with a cast of well-developed characters, major and minor, male and female and of various races and backgrounds. Despite revealing who the villain is early on, Shors creates considerable suspense, and toward the end of the novel, the question of "what happens next?" becomes "who will make it to the end?"
In September of 1942, Benevolence, an American hospital ship—which, unbeknownst to the majority of those on board, is carrying munitions, making it an acceptable target for the enemy—is destroyed by a torpedo while in the Solomon Islands of the South Pacific. Only a small number of passengers survive and make their slow and painful way to an island. The survivors include the captain, a religious man who feels tremendous guilt for the sinking of his ship; his wife Isabelle, a nurse; and her sister Annie, also a nurse. Annie only reaches the island because Akira, a wounded Japanese soldier and the one surviving patient, helps her make the swim. Rounding out the group are Scarlett, another nurse; ships officers Roger and Nathan; Jake, a black farmer turned assistant engineer; and Ratu, a young Fijian.
Seventeen days on an island lead to many changes in the lives of these characters. Although there is nothing mystical about the setting (well, there is the swimming with dolphins), things happen that normally would not: friendships blossom, future plans are made and love is found as they wait for rescue, search for food and fresh water, and watch for the enemy. Of course, it's not all roses. There's also a villain on the island, and he's hoping that friendly ships will not be the first to reach the Americans.
In Beside a Burning Sea, Shors has combined the classic desert island adventure with touching stories of love among the castaways. These elements provide an irresistible pull; Shors makes the reader a willing accomplice on this rewarding journey.
Joanne Collings writes from Washington, D.C.