By: Homer Hickam
Reviewed by: Edward Reynolds
Thomas Dunne Books, 2007
When I saw the title of #1 New York Times best-selling author Homer Hickam’s latest novel The Far Reaches, I anticipated a story of astronauts onboard sleek spaceships flying through the universe in search of strange life forms in otherworldly environs. Hickam, who penned the bestseller Rocket Boys, the basis for the film October Sky, and the novel Back to the Moon, did indeed take me on an adventure to another world, though it was a journey to lush islands in the South Pacific rather than some strange planet in a distant galaxy.
Set against the historical backdrop of World War II—the book opens with the battle of the Pacific island Tarawa—Hickam’s tale is the latest adventure of one of his favorite characters—Josh Thurlow. A tougher than titanium Coast Guard captain who finds himself thrust from the sheer hell of hand-to-hand combat with Japanese marines into the intoxicating paradise of mangojack liquor and horny, breathtakingly gorgeous native women (who love to “ficky-ficky”), Thurlow finds his most formidable challenge in a spunky Irish nun named Sister Mary Kathleen. The nun baffles and manipulates the captain with her fearless determination to remain true to her vows in the face of hell on earth, all the while attempting to convince Thurlow that his very presence will bring an enemy commander to his knees in surrender without having to fire a weapon. She promises that such action will save the island people who have befriended the captain while nursing him back from near-death.
It didn’t take more than a few short chapters for me to fall in love with Sister Mary Kathleen. Hickam endows her with an irresistibly charming Irish brogue and subtle flirtatious manner that Thurlow and his fellow macho comrades can not resist as they begrudgingly do her bidding. That she takes care of the Lord’s business in her tattered and blood-stained head-to-toe religious garb while still wielding a gun when necessary makes her nurturing mission nothing less than mesmerizing. Yet it’s the darkest of “sins” that she has committed and continually refuses to reveal that lures the reader deeper into the tale.
Hickam, a Vietnam veteran and former NASA rocket engineer, has emerged as one of the master storytellers of the past three decades. Even when writing brilliant but disturbing descriptions of the horror of combat, Hickam doesn’t lose his keen sense of humor. The author hilariously shares Josh Thurlow’s thoughts while the Coast Guard captain sips coffee on a South Pacific island: “If coffee weren’t so cheap and anybody could brew it, Josh thought, I’d go home and open up a store and sell nothing but coffee.”
Edward Reynolds is a journalist living in Birmingham.