Homer Hickam has made his name as the chronicler of a lost - or at least shrinking - way of life in America, the small, close-knit blue-collar company town. His superb tales about Coalwood, W.Va., beginning with "Rocket Boys" (which was made into the classic family movie, "October Sky"), have put him in the top rank of American memoirists.
Hickam's Coalwood books are not primarily anthropological but are very personal stories that deal primarily with generational issues between fathers and sons. That theme also permeates "The Ambassador's Son," an adventure story set in the Solomon Islands during World Ware II.
This is Hickam's second novel featuring Capt. Josh Thurlow of the Coast Guard and his quirky crew from the Outer Banks coast of North Carolina. Instead of fighting U-boats on the American coast, Josh is now on a fact-finding mission for Secretary of War Henry Knox in the Pacific theater.
That makes Josh and the boys the perfect choice for a top-secret mission to find David Armistead, a cousin of President Roosevelt and son of an American ambassador, who has gone missing. The problem is Armstead seems to have headed north toward enemy territory on his own, and no one knows whether he's gone native, gone traitor or gone crazy.
The mission for the boys from Kilkakeet, N.C., is to bring Armistead back - or kill him - before he can become a propaganda coup for the Japanese.
For the mission, Thurlow recruits the brooding son of another ambassador, who is recovering from injuries sustained when his boat, PT-109, was run over by a Japanese destroyer.
Things go wrong almost from the beginning, and Josh is stranded on an island crawling with Japanese soldiers and head-hunting natives that is ruled by renegade American bandit. His guide is a warrior princess forcibly married to the American renegade, who falls for Josh in a big way.
Meanwhile, John F. Kennedy and the crew are trying to mount a rescue mission to recover Josh so they can get on with their primary task. This is made more difficult by the fact that their mission is off the books, and Kennedy is awaiting court-martial for his last voyage.
To scrounge supplies, Kennedy must play poker with Trader Nick, a wheeler-dealer who funds most of the R&R activities for the troops with numerous unofficial enterprises. It won't be the last time that "Jack" faces off with "Nick," who introduces himself as a guy named Nixon from San Clemente, Calif.
Other historical figures - including a journalist named Michener eagerly compiling material in the rear echelons - make appearances in the book, Along the way, Josh and the crew, together and separately, battle Japanese soldiers, submarines and fighter planes, as well as pirates and their own passions.
Hickam clearly has fun with the book, and his portraits of Kennedy and Nixon are balanced, offering fodder for fans and foes of both men - though Jack's dad, Joe Kennedy, appears as such a sinister shadow hanging over his son that some Kennedyphiles may be enraged.
The climax is a wild, one-of-a-kind finish that combines the mysticism and culture clash of the Solomon Islands in memorable fashion. Hickam reminds us that brutal conflicts were going on in Solomons before the war, and the war between the Japanese and the Americans, to some islanders, was just a sideshow or one more dangerous layer to their perilous lives.
Despite its "Heart of Darkness" primary plot, "The Ambassador's Son" is much closer in pace to "Tales of the South Pacific," with more combat thrown in. It's a grand adventure in a very old-fashioned manner, providing some historical reality checks that counter some romantic notions of the South Pacific without going overboard into historical revisionism.
This is not a jargon-filled combat novel, such as those written by W.E.B. Griffin, or even a genre war novel. However, anyone on your Father's Day gift list who regularly reads World War II material will enjoy "The Ambassador's Son."
But it will really appeal to those who remember Herman Wouk or early James Michener (before he just began cranking out never-ending historical epics) and who have been devouring books like "The Greatest Generation," and "Flags of our Fathers."
"The Ambassador's Son" is a lark with a dark side, a ripping yarn with a fine sense of history, a feel for the people involved and something to say about the tragic consequences of even a "good" war, family duty and the price of freedom.