(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

To the White Sea recounts the journey of Sergeant Muldrow from Tokyo to the northern island of Hokkaido. Muldrow bails out of his plane, an American B-29 bomber, when it is shot down on a raid over Tokyo. He is the crew’s only survivor.

Muldrow’s journey begins in a sewer, where he hides while awaiting the next day’s bombing raid by the Americans. Amid the panic and chaos it causes, he joins the crowds streaming through the burning city, shoots a man for his clothing, stabs a woman who recognizes that he is foreign, and stabs another man for his shoes. Safely out of the city, he heads north, sleeping along the road, hiding in fields, his only weapon a small bread knife, carefully honed and polished. One night, outside a house where a small family is at dinner, he lets the candlelight glint off the knife blade, then moves on, thrilled that he has left his mark.

Along the way, he feels as though he enters the tree, the stone, the lake. Wrapping himself in animal hides gives him the power of that animal. In his element, in control of his fate, he has seldom been happier, eating the raw flesh of a swan, using its feathers for a mattress, and preying on humans. He stabs an old man for his winter clothing. Near an airfield, Muldrow sees Japanese soldiers decapitate a captured American prisoner. The scene lowers even further his respect for enemy life. Shortly after, he stabs a woman and puts her severed head in a waterwheel bucket. This grisly episode is followed by a touching encounter with two small children. Patiently, he makes a string design for them, then sends them safely back to their house.


(The entire section is 671 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Parts of To the White Sea are good and original. Unfortunately, what is original can hardly count as the best of Dickey’s prose, and what is good is not that original, leaning heavily on Deliverance and its survivalist ethos. In the opening section, Dickey reaches back into his own experience as an airman who took part in the 1945 firebombing of Japan. Later on he will smoothly segue into imagined, mystical passages of immersion in animal world and nature, scenes of hunting, stalking, and killing. Halfway through the novel, during the long train ride episode, his language will become even more poetic and associative. Overall, it is not inaccurate to describe the novel as a sustained internal monologue interlaced with curt, matter-of-fact, explosive sequences of action and violence. The mixture of these disparate styles may jar readers, but it is entirely deliberate. As a 1988 letter to Gore Vidal reveals, Dickey made no real distinction between fact, fiction, history, reminiscence, and fantasy because, as he put it, imagination inhabits them all.

Color imagery dominates the protagonist’s progression from Tokyo to the northern tip of the island of Honshu and across the strait to Hokkaido. The dominant hue changes from the fire red during the bombing raid, to the whiteness of the polar landscape at the end. In between, the author strives to emphasize the imagistic play of other hues and shades, but the overall effect is often contrived...

(The entire section is 494 words.)