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Praise of The Lonely War
The Lonely War makes us ask life's hard questions, framing them against the background of very real men caught up in extraordinary and terrible circumstances. He puts World War II on a human plane, which is—for men like Andrew—how it was fought. My heart ached for all of them.
I would suggest that a fitting resolution for 2010 is to put this book on your “must read” list—sooner, rather than later. It’s that good,  I recommend it wholeheartedly." - Leslie H. Nicoll

Mr. Chin did a bang up job of taking a horrible, heartbreaking time and weaving a believable love story into it. For me the love story isn’t about the men but about life. And I love heartbreaking love stories about life."
 -- Natasha Villion

The Lonely War won the 2010 Rainbow Literary Awards for:  Overall Fiction,  Historical,  Characters, and Setting.

Blurb:  Set in WWII, it tells the story of an enlisted sailor who falls in love with his executive officer. When the crew of the USS Pilgrim become POWs in Changi, a notoriously brutal prison camp, this sailor is elevated though hardship and love to discover his inner resources and extraordinary courage, allowing him to sacrifice himself to save the life of his beloved.


A collaborative review by Leslie H. Nicoll and Natasha Villion at Speak Its Name Review Blog.

Let's start the year with a five star review, shall we? If you are hankering for a well written, historically accurate World War II story that will tug at your heartstrings, The Lonely War by Alan Chin should go straight to the top of your TBR pile.

This story both terrified and enthralled me. I was born in Singapore to a Malay/Indian mother and a white Royal Navy father in the 1960s. So WW2 was still quite fresh in people's minds. Singapore had expelled the communists and had moved away from British rule. It was a glorious upbringing but the underlying sadness of those that lived through WW2 was ever present.

Changi had become a full prison but the beaches around it were a popular swimming place for locals and us temporary locals. There were still small Malay villages with houses sitting on stilts with their palm frond roofs. The old men sat in the shade and watched the mad Europeans dash around the beach playing cricket and other English staple sports.

I was raised by a Malay woman who was both our amah (maid) and nanny.  She told my sister and me stories of the Japanese invasion of her island and how her father had helped smuggle British and Australian soldiers out of the prison and into Malaysia .

My mother told me stories of her father and grandfather and the torture they suffered at Changi prison during the war. They were accused of aiding and spying for the British, which they most proudly did. My great grandfather died during one of these torture sessions watched by his son, my grandfather.

I have yet to come across any Asian who is bitter about the war. Maybe they know more about forgiveness than I do.

This story, The Lonely War by Alan Chin, is about Andrew Waters, an Asian American seaman with the US Navy.  The book is written in three distinct parts. The first is set aboard the US Navy ship, The Pilgrim; the second, at Changi prison; and the third, in Japan , after the war has ended.

Raised in Southeast Asia and forced to leave when it was invaded, Andrew tries to make a life for himself as a Buddhist and pacifist in the US Navy.  It was his American father's wish that Andrew join the Navy and Andrew, being a good Asian son, complies. He is very well educated but not of officer rank. He struggles to maintain a polite distance from all the other men on the ship except one.

The first part of the story, while aboard the USS Pilgrim, has Andrew battling wits with an officer, who is both enthralled and confused by him. This part of the book sets the tone and pace of a love story that lasts a lifetime. It also shows what life was like for non-whites during WW2 and the way they were treated and what was expected of them. It is a good depiction of life aboard a ship of war. Part One ends when the ship is attacked and the men are taken prisoner by the enemy.

Part Two is set during the prisoners' internment at Changi prison, run by the Japanese. For me, this section of the book was terrifying, as I knew from family accounts how ruthless the Japanese were. Even telling such a horrific tale, the writing was very tastefully done. Some of what is described is completely believable, such as the making protein from insects to trade among prisoners. In this part of the story, Andrew shines, although you might not realize it at first. His love for his officer makes him do something that changed him forever. I liked the way this part of the book unfolded and Andrew's dilemma was handled. It wasn't gratuitous or unbelievable. He kept the soul of himself intact and that alone made this section more believable for this reader.

Part Three is Andrew's journey after the war; it is about promises kept and finding your humanity. His soul is shattered and bleeding. Andrew's journey in body and spirit is harrowing. His loss and failings are heartbreaking and the writing is so true to his experience that it hurts to read. This kind, gentle, man has nowhere to turn and no one to turn to and it leaves such a bitter taste in your heart you don't know if you can recover or if he can.

This part sold the story for me. It was so well written that you feel every blade in Andrew's soul.

This part sold the story for me. It was so well written that you feel every blade in Andrew's soul.

I know this story sounds more about war than love, but is it? The author Alan Chin, has written a very good story about WW2 from an Asian American perspective. It is a story of a life-altering experience during internment at one of the most barbaric prisons in Asia and redemption after the war. I found it a truthful telling of one man's life and a faithful account of the war in Asia . I also found a love story that will stay with me long after the last page has been read. I fell in love with all these brave men and I wish them well wherever they might land.

I find I can honestly give the book 5 stars. The historical accuracy was outstanding and that, here at Speak It's Name, is the gold standard by which I judge a book and in that respect, it definitely earned its stars.

To conclude, I sometimes wonder why I like war stories so much, since I certainly don't like war! Maybe it is because the well-written ones do so much to point out the futility and ultimate uselessness of killing each other; that being brutal and hateful is not the way to solve problems even when we are put up against evil people. But we persist. In The Lonely War, Chin makes us ask those hard questions again, framing them against the background of very real men caught up in extraordinary and terrible circumstances. He puts World War II on a human plane, which is, for the soldiers and sailors--men like Andrew--how it was fought. As I closed the last page, my heart ached for all of them.

I would suggest that a fitting resolution for 2010 is to put this book on your "must read" list sooner, rather than later. It's that good and Tish and I recommend it wholeheartedly.



The Pilgrim

It has been said that Common souls pay with what they do, nobler souls with that which they are. And why? Because a profound nature awakens in us by their actions and words, by their very looks and manners. Unknown

March 20, 1941, 0800 hours

In the spring of 1941, the Japanese army surged across the border from China to extend their bloody campaign to all of Southeast Asia . As war crept south, the French, English, and Americans scattered throughout Indochina hastened to Saigon , where they boarded ocean liners bound for their homelands. Meanwhile, the Japanese army massed on the outskirts of the city, poised for another victorious assault. The city held its breath.

Andrew Waters pursued his father across a bustling wharf, still wearing his boarding school uniform and clutching a bamboo flute. The ship that loomed before him was a floating city, mammoth, with numerous passenger decks and topped by two massive stacks that muddied the sky with exhaust. It had been berthed at the inland port on a tributary of the Mekong for a full week, but Andrew saw the crew now scurrying to get underway.

The wharf trembled slightly, and he heard the rat-tat-tat of gunfire over the sirens blaring from the center of the city.

Andrew's father sported a tussore-silk suit of superlative cut and a Panama hat tilted so the brim hid his right eye. His tall figure marched purposefully towards the black-and-white behemoth, and his normally long gait lengthened with noticeable desperation.

Andrew, who was nearly eighteen, paused and panted from an acute nervy rush. He searched the sky for planes. They were still beyond his field of vision, but the drone of bombers echoed through the cloud cover. The rumble of explosions grew loud, and the air carried the faint stench of sulfur.

He hurried on, jostling through a milange of beings, Caucasians dressed in fine western clothes (like his father), rich Chinese in their silks, merchants in long-sleeved jackets, coolies wearing only tattered shorts. Voices all around him shouted while the harsh twang of a military band playing "Auld Lang Syne" vaulted above that unbridled confusion of humanity.

Directly behind him trotted an aged wisp of a monk, who wore the traditional orange robes and held a string of wooden prayer beads. Each bead was the size of a marble and had the chalky gray coloring of Mekong silt. The monk's thumb deliberately ticked past each bead, one after another, like a timer counting down the seconds. Behind the monk came the porters carrying four steamer trunks.

At the gangway, Andrew's father told him to quickly make his goodbye then sprinted up the ramp with the porters in tow.

Surrounded in a press of bodies, the youth reverently embraced the monk. The old man wrapped his arms around Andrew and drew him nearer. The monk's breath tickled his neck, which helped to dissolves his anxieties.

Using the native tongue of South China , he whispered, "Master, I'll come home as soon as I can."

The old monk's face contracted, as if Andrew had posed a difficult question.

"Andrew, war and time will whisk away everything that you love. This is our farewell."

The youth wiped away a tear that broke free from his almond-shaped eyes and slid down his amber-colored cheek.

"Master, I will strive to apply everything you have taught me."

"No, Andrew. You will forget my lessons. Such is the nature of youth. But remember this, since you are American by birth, they will surely draft you. So, on the battlefield, resist the hate that is born from fear. Nurture only love in your heart, Andrew. To love all beings is Buddha-like and transcends us from the world of pain, for love is the highest manifestation of life. To experience love's full bounty is life's only purpose, so tread the moral path before you and sacrifice yourself to love. All else is folly, a dream of the ego."

Baffled, Andrew replied, "Master, I do not understand about sacrificing myself to love."

The old monk's eyes opened wide and his lips spread into a grin.

"Meditate on what I have said. Understanding will come when you are ready." He methodically bundled his string of beads into a ball roughly the size and shape of a monkey's skull and forced them into Andrew's left pants pocket. "Keep these beads to remind yourself of our time together."

The pressure against Andrew's thigh felt awkward, and before the monk pulled away, Andrew became distracted, thinking of how fortunate this man was to be wise and compassionate in the midst of the impending carnage. He realized it took impeccable courage to maintain one's morality during perilous times, courage that he himself did not possess.

He had always assumed he would live a quiet, studious and spiritual life under this old monk's guardianship, and eventually become the old man who stood before him. That image was shattered when war turned the world on its head. Now, all Andrew could think about was getting on that ship and sailing to safety, if such a thing existed.

The ship's whistle cut the air, long and terrible and loud enough to be heard throughout the city. The monk pressed his hands together in front of his forehead and bowed, silently, finally.

Another blast from the ship's whistle sent Andrew running up the gangway, leaving the earthy world of South China behind.

He joined his father on the first-class deck. Entombed in steel, heavy riveted plates of metal underfoot that curved into walls, he jammed together with the other passengers at the rail, peering down at the apprehensive faces. Their body heat added to the stifling temperature. Sweat dribbled down his neck, and he had to gasp to get enough air.

Lines fell away, and the gangway was hauled aboard. Tugs pushed the ship into the middle of the channel and withdrew, leaving the ship to the whim of the current.

Andrew stared straight down at the dense, opaque surface of the river. It reflected the cloudy sky, making the water seem gray rather than the usual brown, yellowish streaks of oil running with the current. The flat moving surface seemed strangely alive, carrying him along, muscling him downstream, as if it were an overwhelming force whose motives he could only guess at.

On the dock, Asian women held their infants over their heads for a last look. Handkerchiefs waved. The band played on.

He saw the first planes against the darkening sky, droning above the city. Explosions grew even louder, and from his perch on the first-class deck, he saw sections of the city erupting. He turned northeast towards his boarding school. Flames. That entire section of the city was engulfed in fire, as if hell had opened its mouth to swallow it whole.

"Clifford," he whispered.

A searing stab of regret lodged in his chest. He had been forced to abandon the object of his adolescent love, and he imagined himself dashing through the chaotic streets to reach the boarding school. There was still time, he thought. They could disappear into the forest. They could live on, together. He wanted to perform that fatal act of love, but he wondered if he could really muster the courage to defy his father.

Reluctantly, at least it felt that way to him, he climbed onto the railing to dive overboard, because he realized the love he shared with Clifford wasn't a trifling adolescent crush at all but rather a deep and consuming love. A love that had somehow been lost in the joys of youth like water in dry sand, and was only now realized.

His father pulled him back, forcing him to stay and suffer what felt like an unquenchable loss. Locked in his father's embrace, he entered a narrow canyon of desolation, knowing the days and hours and minutes ahead would be heartbreaking, and that he might not be strong enough to endure it.

The ship's siren sounded three blasts for its farewell salute. The engines throbbed, and propellers chewed the river. The noise swelled to a din like the end of the world.

The passengers on deck could no longer hide their sorrow. Everyone wept, not only those people parting but the onlookers as well. Even the dockhands and porters shed tears.

The ship traveled downstream as the military band played "The Star-Spangled Banner."

To Andrew, the orange-robed figure crushed within the throng on the dock seemed at odds with the fires raging across the city. He now fully understood the monk's words, that war would steal everything he loved, that a way of life, their way of life, had perished. Pain flooded his whole being, like that of a baby prematurely ripped from its protective womb.

He pulled away from his father's embrace and staggered farther down the deck to cry without being seen. He positioned himself at the rail, one arm folded around a steel support beam and his face pressed against the hot metal.

People on the wharf seemed to hesitate, then regretfully turned and scurried away. He watched the smudge of orange, scarcely visible and standing at the edge of the pier, utterly still, quiescent, until the harbor faded from view and the land disappeared as well, slowly swallowed beneath the curve of the earth.