There’s a genre in fiction known as alternate history. It usually gets lumped in with science fiction, although in reality, it’s somewhere between that and history. The premise usually involves taking some pivotal point in history and asking what would have happened if something had been done differently. Harry Turtledove is one of the renowned authors of this genre. In Days of Infamy he tells his version of what would have happened had the Japanese invaded Hawaii instead of simply bombing Pearl Harbor.
Taking advantage of the element of surprise, the Japanese not only bomb the heck out of Pearl Harbor but land troops on the Island as well. Turtledove builds on the facts of December 7, 1941, and has the Japanese invade fairly easily since not only was the Pacific Fleet crippled that day, but all of the planes based in Hawaii were pretty much knocked out of commission as well. The superiority of the Japanese forces both in the air and on the sea make their landing and taking over the island of Oahu a fairly easy process.
What follows is something different. Those left behind on Oahu must contend with being Occupied. Japanese soldiers do not consider surrender to be honorable, and they treat the American P.O.W.s who surrender as less than dirt. For civilians, it is a fight to survive and not starve as all of the supplies from the mainland are cut off.
Turtledove weaves an interesting cast of characters. He tells the story of the invasion and occupation from a variety of points of view, as he usually does. There’s the fisherman who immigrated to Hawaii from Japan and still considers himself Japanese, although his two sons consider themselves American. There’s a surfer-bum who surfs through the invasion with his buddy and out of desperation to go out fishing and bring in some food invents the sailboard. Two soldiers in the P.O.W. camps are here as they labor under the Japanese tyranny and slowly waste away. One has a soon-to-be-ex-wife who was a schoolteacher on the island. There are Japanese soldiers in the occupying forces as well as the Commanders involved in the invasion.
There are two stories that take place on the mainland. One is that of Joe Crosetti, a mechanic from San Francisco who wants to become a pilot and get even with the Japanese. His enlistment and training are followed against the backdrop of what was happening at the time in Hawaii. The second is of Lester Dillon, a Marina Platoon Sergeant preparing the force which will one day hopefully take back the islands. As the people in Oahu are starving and trying to survive somehow, someway under the brutal rule of the Japanese, the U.S. makes two half-hearted attempts to re-take the territory and are turned back.
Days of Infamy is the first book of a two-part series. Many of the characters are left questionable at the end. Turtledove is not above killing off characters he creates, so that does leave an air of suspense.
The problems with Days of Infamy are endemic to many of Turtledove’s books. His repetition over and over again of the same background pertaining to each of the characters wears thin after a bit. Every time the story focuses on Japanese-born Jiro Takahasi, the story of his pride in Japan and his disdain for his sons’ loyalty toward America is discussed. Every time the story focuses on either Jane or Fletcher Armitage, the disintegration of their marriage is discussed. Again and again, the same facts are repeated over and over; the same thoughts; the same feelings. It gets terribly boring and made me want to skip some sections. That’s not an option because within all the repetition there could be one throwaway fact that will be a pivotal point later on. Some points are just repeated over and over again throughout all of the stories as the disappearance of certain birds is used to demonstrate just how hungry everyone on the island is becoming, but hearing it over and over again gets quite tedious.
Two other problems I had were somewhat geographical. I didn’t understand the topography of the island of Oahu, where most of the story takes place. When Turtledove discusses various locations on the island, I didn’t have a really strong understanding of what he was talking about. A map at the beginning or a better description of the geographic locations would make it much easier for some of us unfamiliar with Oahu to grasp. I told my business partner, who lived in Hawaii for fifteen years, that in some ways he would get more out of this book than I would. If he’d been handy when I was reading it I probably would have driven him crazy with all of my questions about the various places in Oahu.
The other problem was that the only Island talked about was Oahu. There were no details of what – if anything – was happening on any of the other Hawaiian islands.
The one part of the story I did really like was the stories in the P.O.W. camps. Here was one spot I didn’t mind the repetition so much as it showed the monotony of life in the camp. The slow descent into desperation on the part of the prisoners is really done well, and one of the places where the repetition and tedium didn’t seem out of place.
It took me quite some time to finish the book as I really didn’t feel drawn into the story in such a way that I wanted to know what was going to happen to the characters. He just didn’t get deep enough with them that they seemed real to me. This novel just seemed like a miss in so many ways, much like all of the Dean Koontz books started seeming formulaic to me after a while. If I could I’d give it 2 ? stars and just a slight recommendation because the second novel in the series is so much better and you really need to read this one to grasp the scope of the story being told.