Books — In the Shadows of the Sun

Searching the Shadows...Word War II-era  tale shows life outside the battles

In the Shadows of the Sun, by Alexander Parsons; Nan A. Talese, 2005, 262 pages.

By Nathan Graziano

Historical fiction can be slippery ground. Skeptics scarf, preferring to turn to the straight facts for their accounts of history. This is lazy logic. As any student of history can tell you, facts are, by the very nature of recollection, relative and often arbitrary. What books on history can teach has more to do with the human condition than statistics.

In the Shadows of the Sun, the second novel by University of New Hampshire assistant professor Alexander Parsons, handles the human condition — specifically the response to war, sacrifice and loss – with unflinching competence, holding readers spellbound for 262 pages of this story set in the World War II era.

It would be easy to pigeonhole Parsons’ novel as a war story. It begins in 1942 with a horrific account of the Bataan Death March in the Philippines. The Strickland family, modest ranchers from arid, dust-laden lands of the New Mexico desert, watched their eldest son, Jack, go off to fight in the war, much to the dismay of Jack’s stubborn father, Ross. Jack was sent to Philippines, eventually surrendering with the American troops and taken prisoner of war by the Japanese. This is where the story begins.

Meanwhile, as Jack’s family worries about his well being while at home in New Mexico, their troubles are compounded when the U.S. government seizes their ranch in order to perform testing for the atom bomb on the land. The novel flashes between accounts of Jack in the prison camps overseas and the Strickland brothers’ struggle to keep their land and families together. The atom bomb becomes a dynamic central metaphor, its ubiquity, decimating power and long-ranging resonance mirroring the characters’ loss of hope as their lives as they knew them detonate.

Parsons’ eloquent, lush sensory prose jumps from the pages. His keen attention to landscapes lends the novel a grounded sense of place and location, his descriptions of his native state New Mexico being some of the most vivid. Parsons gains readers access into a world that’s both beautiful and horrendous, allowing the juxtapositions ample space to breathe.

There’s no denying that parts of In the Shadows of the Sun are grisly, disturbing and graphic. However, Parsons does not use the violence gratuitously. These unnerving scenes of torture, murder and mutilation are intended to linger. They speak to a larger message having to do with human beings’ capacity for evil. War is never pretty, and death is rarely proud here. 

This novel exemplifies why we should continue to read historical fiction. In the Shadows of the Sun also poses some timely questions for 21st-century America, such as how much are we expected to sacrifice in the name of patriotism. With this book, Alexander Parsons establishes himself as both a master of the craft of fiction and an ebullient observer of history’s significance.

2005 HippoPress LLC | Manchester, NH