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Recommended reading as part of the Chief of Naval Operation's Professional Reading Program! This now-classic novel by Richard McKenna enjoyed great critical acclaim and commercial success when it was first published in 1962. The winner of the coveted Harper Prize, it was on the New York Times bestseller list for seven months and was made into a popular motion picture that c Recommended reading as part of the Chief of Naval Operation's Professional Reading Program! This now-classic novel by Richard McKenna enjoyed great critical acclaim and commercial success when it was first published in 1962. The winner of the coveted Harper Prize, it was on the New York Times bestseller list for seven months and was made into a popular motion picture that continues to be shown on television today. Set in China on the eve of revolution, the book tells the story of an old U.S. Navy gunboat, the San Pablo, and her dedicated crew of Sand Pebbles on patrol in the far reaches of the Yangtze River to show the flag and protect American missionaries and businessmen from bandits. The plot revolves around a newcomer to the boat, machinist's mate Jake Holman, a maverick and loner who dramatically alters the lives of the crew and the people they have come to save. A faithful engine-room coolie and a pretty young missionary help Holman gain an appreciation of China and its people and discover a world of humanity and promise he has never known. It is a story of old loyalties versus new values, of violence and tenderness, tragedy and humor, and it engages the reader from the first line to the last. This new paperback edition includes in informative introduction by Robert Shenk, written for the Naval Institute's Classics of Naval Literature edition in 1984.


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Recommended reading as part of the Chief of Naval Operation's Professional Reading Program! This now-classic novel by Richard McKenna enjoyed great critical acclaim and commercial success when it was first published in 1962. The winner of the coveted Harper Prize, it was on the New York Times bestseller list for seven months and was made into a popular motion picture that c Recommended reading as part of the Chief of Naval Operation's Professional Reading Program! This now-classic novel by Richard McKenna enjoyed great critical acclaim and commercial success when it was first published in 1962. The winner of the coveted Harper Prize, it was on the New York Times bestseller list for seven months and was made into a popular motion picture that continues to be shown on television today. Set in China on the eve of revolution, the book tells the story of an old U.S. Navy gunboat, the San Pablo, and her dedicated crew of Sand Pebbles on patrol in the far reaches of the Yangtze River to show the flag and protect American missionaries and businessmen from bandits. The plot revolves around a newcomer to the boat, machinist's mate Jake Holman, a maverick and loner who dramatically alters the lives of the crew and the people they have come to save. A faithful engine-room coolie and a pretty young missionary help Holman gain an appreciation of China and its people and discover a world of humanity and promise he has never known. It is a story of old loyalties versus new values, of violence and tenderness, tragedy and humor, and it engages the reader from the first line to the last. This new paperback edition includes in informative introduction by Robert Shenk, written for the Naval Institute's Classics of Naval Literature edition in 1984.

30 review for The Sand Pebbles

  1. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    My buddy Brad lives and works in China, teaching at an international school. He has for several years. Recently, in the midst of a post-second-child adventure-free period (I suppose childrearing is its own adventure), I decided to go visit him. I don’t know a great deal about the most populous country in the world, so when Brad asked what I wanted to do, I wrote him a simple email: “I want to see the Great Wall of China and then eat ALL THE DUMPLINGS.” After my passport, the most important items My buddy Brad lives and works in China, teaching at an international school. He has for several years. Recently, in the midst of a post-second-child adventure-free period (I suppose childrearing is its own adventure), I decided to go visit him. I don’t know a great deal about the most populous country in the world, so when Brad asked what I wanted to do, I wrote him a simple email: “I want to see the Great Wall of China and then eat ALL THE DUMPLINGS.” After my passport, the most important items I would bring across the globe were a selection of books to read. I spent much more time pondering the titles to lug from Omaha to Beijing than I did on my wardrobe (cargo shorts, cargo shorts, and more cargo shorts). During the process, it occurred to me that since I was going to China, and taking books with me, and since I knew little of the People’s Republic aside from the greatness of their walls, and the deliciousness of their dumplings, I should probably take a book on or about China. A fast-tracked selection process winnowed my choices to two: John Keay’s China: A History; and Richard McKenna’s The Sand Pebbles. Keay’s book was the obvious choice. It’s the first thing that pops up when you search for “China history book.” The Sand Pebbles was the offbeat choice. Not about China, per se, but set in China. (And also the subject of an awesome movie starring Steve McQueen). I could’ve flipped a coin, but instead I did the first sentence test. That is, I chose the book by the more come-hither-y first line. Keay: “China’s economic resurgence in the post-Mao era has not been without its casualties.” It didn’t exactly light my heart on fire, but it’s enough to get me to sentence number two. But first, I had to give The Sand Pebbles a quick test drive. McKenna: “‘Hello, ship,’ Jake Holman said under his breath.” Whoa, whoa, whoa. A man talking to a ship? Tell me more, McKenna. “The ship was asleep and did not hear him.” Wait? Now you’re anthropomorphizing the ship? You’ve hooked me. That’s how I came to read The Sand Pebbles on my trip to China. (In fairness to Keay, I’m sure his book is a very good overview on China. That’s the consensus, at least. Frankly, I’ll probably never get around to reading it, but it’ll always be on my shelf, a reminder of that time I didn't read it in China). The Sand Pebbles tells the story of the San Pablo, a United States gunboat patrolling the riverways of China in the late 1920s, just as the country is beginning its descent into a Civil War between the loyalist Kuomintang and the Communist Party of China. Jake Holman, the man first seen talking to the San Pablo, is a new engineer aboard the gunboat. He is something of a maverick (which isn’t a surprise, considering he was played by Steve McQueen), with really high duty marks, but an inability to last very long with any single boat crew. The story McKenna unspools is almost entirely episodic. There is not a single narrative through line, no accumulating plot. Instead, it’s just life aboard the San Pablo: friction between crew members; rebuilding the engine; going ashore to have drinks. All this, of course, is set against the backdrop of the growing civil unrest. And make no mistake, the essential plotlessness does not mean The Sand Pebbles isn’t going anywhere. It is, and its ending is an emotional gut-punch. But the path to that climax is as meandering as the rivers the San Pablo patrols. In a book like this, where there is a string of mini-arcs, the characters are the most important thing. At first, McKenna’s dramatis personae read like types: the boat’s commander, Lt. Collins, the uptight martinet; Holman, the enlightened rogue, who can’t fit in the military because he’s smarter than everyone else; the sidekick, Burgoyne, a typical hail fellow well met, who falls in love with a Chinese woman; the coolie, Po-han, who gets taken under Holman’s wing; and the missionary woman Shirley, who helps present the anti-colonial side of the coin. McKenna does not necessarily shatter these archetypes, but he certainly gives them depth. Almost every character, even the ones on the fringe, are given shading. McKenna’s third-person omniscient viewpoint allows him to enter the thoughts and minds of any character he wishes. Yes, Collins is a priggish disciplinarian, but he is also given scenes in which he ruminates on the hard choices and sacrifices that he’s made to earn his command. Holman is just an absolute nut, in a good way. He is a mass of puzzles and contradictions and even though he is the hero, he can be unlikeable. Yet by the end of the novel, you understand him so well that you know every offbeat choice he’s going to make. He is an amazing creation – absolutely fully realized. McKenna served on a Yangtze River gunboat in the 1930s, and wrote this in 1962, before the age of political correctness. There was, then, the very real possibility of the racial stereotypes overshadowing the story, especially since the notion of coolies – Chinese men who labored at tasks thought to be “below” white men – doesn’t play very well in the 21st century. To McKenna’s credit, I thought he did a really good job walking the tightrope – all the better since when he wrote this, he didn't know the tightrope would ever exist. There is racism, of course, both direct and indirect, but it comes from the characters, not the authorial voice. Holman, obviously, is the most enlightened one, believing that the engine room coolies can be made to understand the fundamental working of the engines, rather than just mimicking the motions of their white bosses. It’d be disingenuous to say that Po-han is as fully developed as some of the other major characters, but McKenna gives him his due. He takes us to Po-han’s hutong, gives him a family, and credibly demonstrates the traditions and hierarchies of his life. As a whole, I thought McKenna did a good job of giving the coolies agency. Through the sailors’ eyes, they are little more than servants who speak hilariously pidgin English. But in the way they “squeeze” the ship, skimming from it in every way possible, McKenna actually shows them to be burgeoning capitalists on the make. The Sand Pebbles is beautifully written. McKenna is good at the characterizations. He’s good at action (including the immolation of a priest, a dark mob scene, and some sharp gunfights). He is superb at creating the environment in which the story takes place. The San Pablo is rendered in exquisite detail, as are the Chinese port cities – with their narrow allies, close quarters, and near-indescribable smells – and the river itself. The true flood came quietly in the night. It was a slow, steady rise of water with lazy back eddies and an actual slackening of the current, but it covered and carried away the stinking corpses along the foot of the embankment. It was Yangtze floodwater from the melting snow on the great mountains of Tibet, backing up the Siang and filling Tungting Lake for the summer. Silently, hour after hour, day and night, the broadening brown river swallowed sandbars and crept up the stone embankment fronting the city until the chanting water coolies had only a few steps to climb with their slopping pairs of tins. Even the dialogue is good. And it introduced me to a new stand-in for the f-word: prong. As in “prong you!” or “prong your mother!” or “we’re pronged!” This book is a classic. It is a great pronging book.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jan-Maat

    We are familiar with the brash side of the USA Vaunting aloud, but racked with deep despair (view spoiler)[ not for nothing is the USA in Iran 'the great Satan' (hide spoiler)] desperately asserting how brilliantly fantastical it and its mission to the world are, this however is a book from the other side of the USA, from the veteran who has come back from Imperial service overseas, gets a higher education and then writes this book, which isn't anti-american as such, but is anti-Imperalist, anti We are familiar with the brash side of the USA Vaunting aloud, but racked with deep despair (view spoiler)[ not for nothing is the USA in Iran 'the great Satan' (hide spoiler)] desperately asserting how brilliantly fantastical it and its mission to the world are, this however is a book from the other side of the USA, from the veteran who has come back from Imperial service overseas, gets a higher education and then writes this book, which isn't anti-american as such, but is anti-Imperalist, anti-colonial, and critical of class and racial hierarchies(view spoiler)[ although the language and attitudes are appropriate to the setting which may put off some readers (hide spoiler)] . Of course the men are only in the navy, serving in China in the 1920s, because there was no place for them in the country which they serve. Despite their unsuitability for civilian life in the USA, they are deemed fit for bullying and intimidating Chinese, or as it might be politely termed, protecting US interests in the far East. To put all this across McKenna opens with a sailor, one Jake Holman, posted to a new ship, the San Pablo (view spoiler)[ the captain (view spoiler)[ who is a lieutenant (hide spoiler)] is formally described as The San Pablo, the crew then , informally are known as 'the Sand Pebbles' (hide spoiler)] which bobs about on the Yangtze in 1920s China. Finding the ship at first sight a bit odd, he heads down below to the engine room, the place where he feels comfortable. Immediately then we have the famous Symbol alert(view spoiler)[ which is like a Red alert, but louder and more insistent(view spoiler)[ and setting a story on a ship rings bells loud enough to drive us all as mad as Quasimodo (hide spoiler)] (hide spoiler)] , because down in the engine room Holman seeks in his first days on board to draw up a plan of the plant and trace the tubes and pipe work. So we have the quest to understand what it is all about, how things work and stand in relation to each other, unsurprisingly the ship and her engine themselves have meaning: the engines we learn were originally built by Chinese for the Spanish, the craft was Spanish but was taken as loot by the US after victory in the Spanish-American war (view spoiler)[ and curiously not renamed, but perhaps that is the US practise (hide spoiler)] she's worn out and decrepit, in the background a new fleet of modern gunboats is being constructed that at some point will be launched and more effectively project US power along the river, but what we see is that the US element on board is a top coat of personnel, indeed barely even that, because over the years the official crew has been supplemented by a shadow crew of Chinese who do all the work - stoking the boiler, cleaning, cooking, shaving the US sailors, tailoring uniforms etc, etc. Their presence is essential but unofficial, they make their money through charges to the crew and stealing stuff or appropriating a percentage of the stores. Eventually, this being a anti-colonialist parable - the Chinese leave and the crew fall apart. Imperialism isn't a simple top down down process, it involves symbiosis and collaborations on both sides, creating varieties of interdependencies. When the Chinese no longer play along and rip up the paper tiger, the crew are shown to have attained a fine degree of learnt helplessness - unshaven, dirty, they divide into gangs and fight over the last onions crying as they eat them like apples (view spoiler)[ there is some humour too (view spoiler)[ along which lines the British gunboats are HMS Woodcock and HMS Chaffcock (view spoiler)[ which reminds me of Memoirs of a dutiful Daughter as the young Miss Beauvoir is confronted in a religious bookshop by what the young bookseller ought to have kept inside his trousers, though from a practical point of view if he suffered from chafe-cock from the action of his apron then it was the least that he deserved (hide spoiler)] McKenna has affection at least for the British not to have an HMS Limpcock on the river (hide spoiler)] (hide spoiler)] . It is, I guess not accidental that it was made into a film during the era of Vietnam, nor that the flag of the Kuomintang is described as a gear wheel throughout. But I have to wonder how it was made into a film, because aside from symbols big as Moby Dick, gambolling through the water like a Yangtze river dolphin, a novel needs other stuff too it is generally thought, like a plot. Well this book doesn't really have a plot. Instead you have the ship and her crew doing Navy stuff while a certain situation unfolds, which leads reasonably enough to the kind of ending you might expect from an anti-colonial parable (view spoiler)[ ie not a happy one (hide spoiler)] . Now I am going to have to explain 'Navy stuff' because I can sense eyes lighting up and a thought process going - 1920s China + US gunboat = Japanese spies and Bolshevik agents, battling warlords, opium dens, gun running, smuggling, people trafficking, adventure, then you'll run out grab the book, read a couple of hundred pages and start to curse me. Some of that stuff happens but not in an adventurous kind of way, by Navy Stuff I mean inspections followed by exercise on deck, doing repair work in the boiler room, sitting down in the mess for some chow, banter and chatter, the Captain's (view spoiler)[ the Captain is a Lieutenant (hide spoiler)] horror when contrary to regulations an enlisted man sits down opposite him wearing dungarees, so Navy stuff. On the back cover of this edition there is a quote from a New York Times review that this is a lusty, action packed tale I guess the reviewer was a person who got over excited when they saw a lawn mower and who was banned by court order from coming within thirty foot of a motor car because the central action of the novel is when Holman takes apart and rebuilds the ship's engine - this resolves a really irritating knocking sound (view spoiler)[ having said that, it kind of works in context (hide spoiler)] . Holman does this rebuilding with his Chinese mate, their physical similarity is stressed, Holman struggles to explain in a mixture of pigeon and play-acting how the engine works, but he himself is ignorant of the physics and formal mathematics involved - which the Lieutenant (view spoiler)[ who is the Captain (hide spoiler)] does understand. The work on the engines suggests a new paradigm, not domination and control backed up by violence but sharing, joint labour, and fraternity. The social position of Holman parallels that of the Chinese - falsely accused of bringing liquor to a school social event he is efficiently beaten up by the town's lawman and given a choice by the Judge between the Reform School and the Navy, and the navy at least will pay you...he is still driven by a longing to understand and have some control over his own life. Ditto we observe China, efficiently beaten up by the great powers, obliged to endure their jurisdiction and authority, and seeking to come to terms with the modern world and have some control over their own affairs. Holman is offered an out in the novel, a chance to be become a mechanic at a mission and redeem himself through good works but I do believe (view spoiler)[ that I have made some mention of an absence of a certain kind of ending (hide spoiler)] anyhow - let us remember history in the near future there will be an incident at the Marco Polo bridge and then later will come 1949 and all that, we know what is ahead of all these people and that has always been an integral part of reading this book which was written and published in the 1960s with a 1920s setting. This a cultural revolution book, a Mea Culpa to the Red Guards. There are a couple of incidents that could have developed into a plot in the hands of a different writer, both involving sexual politics, as has been noted just because you have Black people and so on that doesn't make the category of White people uncontroversial or straight forward, the technically white US sailors barely qualify as such, their company is felt to be polluting to white women except in certain formal situations, and white Russians (view spoiler)[in this case refugees from Red Russia(view spoiler)[ the USSR, not Ruthenia (hide spoiler)] , rather than Belorussians or the cocktail (hide spoiler)] are also non-white, legally they are Chinese, Japanese get to be honorary whites, this racism lark is a lot of hard work once you get into it (view spoiler)[ which is why I guess your far-right types are so angry (hide spoiler)] , Liberté, égalité, fraternité by contrast are concepts you can relax with (view spoiler)[ but if you are going to have a drink - don't loose your head (hide spoiler)] . Socially then, marriage between a sailor and a white woman is impossible, while legally marriage between a sailor and a native person is equally impossible and since this is the 1920s the thought of homosexuality makes the Lieutenant (view spoiler)[ who is the captain (hide spoiler)] shudder, therefore the results are frustration and prostitution (view spoiler)[ and this is the kind of novel that when Holman is with a white Russian prostitute the only ship in view is the above mentioned HMS Limpcock, the prostitute realises he is in need of some specialised services and urges him to have a good cry, but he can't manage that either (hide spoiler)] and for some a nagging grey area like a hangover involving a vague boozy memory of a church and a priest with it the delicate question of what constitutes a marriage anyway? I have a distinct memory of their being a battered paper back copy of this book on my Father's shelves when I was young though he was a book hoarder with an over great respect for books, personally I feel one needs to winnow books and separate the wheat from the chaff, but anyhow years later he didn't have a copy of this or The Red Sailor and moaned about it, however thanks to the magic of the internet, and the US Chief of Naval operations professional reading program, this one was at least easy to acquire. I noticed a couple of his stories were curiously similar to ones from the book - the Chinese shadow crew and a fight in which a little man beats a big man - in this book the one breaks the other's nose while in my father's version the nose got bitten off. Whether this means that Art mirrors life and all service on all warships is essentially a repetitive cycle in which almost everybody who has ever served has seen a little guy best a bigger one by doing something vicious to his nose, or if my father's reading supplemented his own memory in a creative way, or indeed that some stories are simply too big to be merely contained in books as we learn from Don Quixote It is not a great book, for instance there is a scene when the Lieutenant (view spoiler)[ who is the captain (hide spoiler)] sits down to have a conversation with the senior man of the Chinese shadow crew and both pointedly don't drink their tea. There are writers who can make you feel that undrunk cup of tea as an unbearable tension, McKenna can't, but you can see were he is going. Equally a lot of the formal stuff of the book, the Navy stuff is pretty boring to write about, but he makes it work in a 'you had to be there at the time' kind of way. It's the kind of book that might be objectively described as subjectively well-loved, rather than truly great. Judging by the other reviews it is not so cack-handed a parable as I have made it sound either, but every reader reads their own book into existence I suppose.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Joy D

    Published in 1962, The Sand Pebbles is book about the fictional U.S. Navy gunboat San Pablo, patrolling the rivers and ports of China in the 1920’s. As the story opens, protagonist Jake Holman is just arriving onboard. He is not a typical sailor – he resents the submission to authority and discipline required for military duty. He has been shuffled from one ship to another due to his attitude. He excels at maintaining the ship’s engines. Holman, as an outsider, is not popular with the crew, but Published in 1962, The Sand Pebbles is book about the fictional U.S. Navy gunboat San Pablo, patrolling the rivers and ports of China in the 1920’s. As the story opens, protagonist Jake Holman is just arriving onboard. He is not a typical sailor – he resents the submission to authority and discipline required for military duty. He has been shuffled from one ship to another due to his attitude. He excels at maintaining the ship’s engines. Holman, as an outsider, is not popular with the crew, but eventually makes a few loyal friends. He takes one of the Chinese laborers under his wing to teach him about engines. He helps another when the friend becomes involved with a local Chinese woman. Jake keeps in touch with a female Christian missionary and teacher he met on his way to his duty station. He forms genuine friendships for the first time in his life. He does not buy into the racist attitudes toward the Chinese and becomes a sympathetic character. The first half of the book describes shipboard and shoreside life during the era of “gunboat diplomacy” and the second shows the changes brought about by the rise of Chinese Nationalism. Themes include identity, loyalty, courage, class, and power. It is a story of a country on the verge of revolution, and the impact on the forces that previously had the upper hand. The author vividly portrays the time and place. The first half is relatively tame compared to the volatile second half. The characters are realistic, with strengths and flaws. Jake’s character is particularly well-formed. McKenna includes representatives of the many groups involved in this complex time. The climax is expertly constructed. The reader can sense the characters’ distress in dealing with torn loyalties and painful decisions. The story includes violence and tragedy, but also tenderness and compassion. It is Jake’s story but also provides insight into this period of China’s history. This was one of my grandfather’s favorite books.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Sara

    4.5 stars- rounded down. It is China 1926. Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuomintang is on the rise and China is on the brink of eruption. Jake Holman is a sailor on the American gunship, San Pablo, and he and his shipmates will be at the center of the explosion, as the Chinese begin to expel foreign interests from their country. Holman is a misfit. He loves and understands the engine, the machinery for which he is responsible on the ship, but he does not understand people very well and knows little or nothin 4.5 stars- rounded down. It is China 1926. Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuomintang is on the rise and China is on the brink of eruption. Jake Holman is a sailor on the American gunship, San Pablo, and he and his shipmates will be at the center of the explosion, as the Chinese begin to expel foreign interests from their country. Holman is a misfit. He loves and understands the engine, the machinery for which he is responsible on the ship, but he does not understand people very well and knows little or nothing of love. His feelings about the Chinese are not quite in line with his fellow seamen and he befriends and trains a coolie who helps him to see the Chinese as individuals rather than as a class of people to be exploited for labor or sex. He is more aware and more open than those around him, and that does not always serve him well in dealing with those he encounters. Then there are the missionaries, and particularly Miss Eckert. If you have seen the movie made from this book (a wonderful thing starring the inimitable Steve McQueen), you will expect a more robust love story than you will get between these pages. The romantic angle works for the movie, but here McKenna seems to be making a much different point in having Miss Eckert as part of his tale. She is the unattainable dream and sometimes the motivating force for Holman, and even when he steeps himself in thoughts of her, she eludes him. For each of these men, trapped aboard a small ship in a world that they do not understand and of which they are truly not a part, there is something that pushes them through the frightening situation they are in, and for Holman it is Shirley Eckert. There is a great deal of detail here about the workings of the engine, the daily lives of the crew and the onboard coolies, the marches and political dealings of the revolutionaries and the rules that operate between the powerful nations that seem to want to divide China between them and the Chinese who are its life’s blood. The details are never boring and always informative of the plot. Nothing is unnecessary or misplaced. I closed the book understanding much more about the era it addresses and the individual characters portrayed. I have had this book sitting on my library shelf for a number of years, and I am so glad that I did not allow it to sit any longer. I gave a dollar for it on a bargain table...talk about getting your monies worth!

  5. 5 out of 5

    David Putnam

    Loved this book. Couldn't put it down. I don't know how I missed it for all these years. I can not believe McKenna has only one book. Sometimes when that happens its because the author puts his heart and soul into a masterpiece. I Think that's what happened this time. The use of metaphor, and simile, and fantastic character development makes this one a true winner. It was on the New York Times bestseller list for many months when it came out. An interesting side note: This book is very historical Loved this book. Couldn't put it down. I don't know how I missed it for all these years. I can not believe McKenna has only one book. Sometimes when that happens its because the author puts his heart and soul into a masterpiece. I Think that's what happened this time. The use of metaphor, and simile, and fantastic character development makes this one a true winner. It was on the New York Times bestseller list for many months when it came out. An interesting side note: This book is very historical as is The Winds of War (that I just reread after 30 years). Sand Pebbles talks about the rise of nationalism, the shift from a feudal Warlord system to a united national government. In the Winds of War which happens years after the time of The Sand Pebbles describes the rise of Adolph Hitler and what precipitated the war. In many ways both are similar. Strangely, it's not too difficult to draw parallels to what is happening in our world today. David Putnam author of The Bruno Johnson series.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Rod

    The year is 1926; the place, Hunan Province, China, on the Yangtze River. Revolution is in the air, as the Kuomintang movement vies to free China from the unequal treaties from the Boxer Rebellion and from the pervasive presence of western gunboats patrolling the rivers, exercising what is known as “gunboat diplomacy.” Jake Holman is a ship’s engineer, a machinist’s mate beginning a stint on the U.S. gunship San Pablo, an iron-hulled, coal-burning relic of the Spanish-American war. The crew are The year is 1926; the place, Hunan Province, China, on the Yangtze River. Revolution is in the air, as the Kuomintang movement vies to free China from the unequal treaties from the Boxer Rebellion and from the pervasive presence of western gunboats patrolling the rivers, exercising what is known as “gunboat diplomacy.” Jake Holman is a ship’s engineer, a machinist’s mate beginning a stint on the U.S. gunship San Pablo, an iron-hulled, coal-burning relic of the Spanish-American war. The crew are nicknamed the "Sand Pebbles," thus providing the novel its name. The story centers around Holman—a classic rebellious military iconoclast in the vein of Prewitt from From Here to Eternity—but the view is wide-ranging, providing sympathetic yet unsentimental portrayals of both major and minor characters, from the lowliest engine coolie to the ship's officers, to the idealistic missionaries who often find themselves at odds with the Navy men. All viewpoints are represented, allowing the reader to decide who is right (everyone, at one point or another) and who is wrong (also everyone, at one point or another). One review blurb on an old paperback edition said "It carries no pot of message: its purpose is simply to excite and entertain." Although it is exciting and entertaining, I couldn't find that blurb any further off the mark. This is a remarkably intelligent, thoughtful book that leaves the reader pondering it after the last page is turned. This was McKenna’s first and—sadly—only novel, as he died shortly after its publication. A writer of great talent, he undoubtedly had more great novels in him had he lived.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Judy

    This very long but extremely interesting novel was the #9 bestseller in 1963. I have completed the bestseller portion of that year's list. Now I am on to the Award winners of the year, of which there are six. The Sand Pebbles are a nickname for the crew of the San Pablo, an old US Navy gunboat whose job is to patrol the Yangtze River, show the US flag, and protect American missionaries and businessmen. The story covers the years 1925 to 1927. Chiang Kai Shek was in those years a fairly young Chin This very long but extremely interesting novel was the #9 bestseller in 1963. I have completed the bestseller portion of that year's list. Now I am on to the Award winners of the year, of which there are six. The Sand Pebbles are a nickname for the crew of the San Pablo, an old US Navy gunboat whose job is to patrol the Yangtze River, show the US flag, and protect American missionaries and businessmen. The story covers the years 1925 to 1927. Chiang Kai Shek was in those years a fairly young Chinese communist fomenting a revolution to do away with the power of the ruling dynasty, the war lords, and the unequal treaties that foreign businesses benefited from in China. Jake Holman, a machinist, as the central character, is a rebellious loner who loves machines more than people. He ended up in the Navy as an escape from incarceration in his poverty-stricken small hometown. He hates authority figures and has no use for military regulations and procedures but he excels at keeping the San Pablo's steam engines running. This is a big sprawling book but McKenna does an excellent job of melding story lines, building characters both American and Chinese, and keeping the excitement and tension high. As the political scene heats up, the San Pablo and its crew face danger, ridicule and even heartbreak. Jake grows into a man who does find many kinds of people he can relate to and possibly a way to deal with life. According to the Introduction, the research is accurate. I was glad I read that first because I knew very little about that period of Chinese history. Thanks to the novel and a bit of internet study, I now know much more. My husband says he remembers seeing the novel on his mother's bookshelves when he was a kid. A movie starring Steve McQueen as Jake Holman came out in 1966. Sailors, whores, coolies, communists, missionaries, warlords and what a plot! One of the best of the 1963 bestsellers.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Richard

    This is a story rich in historical relevance and in character development. It is centered on Jake Holman, Machinist's Mate 1st Class who is transferred to duty on a U.S. Navy gunboat during the early days of the violent Chinese Revolution in about 1926. He utters the novel's first words, "Hello, ship" as he sizes up the "San Pablo" at its dock. Holman is a very intelligent, industrious sailor who has a love of learning. He knows everything about the steam-powered engines in ships and wants to sp This is a story rich in historical relevance and in character development. It is centered on Jake Holman, Machinist's Mate 1st Class who is transferred to duty on a U.S. Navy gunboat during the early days of the violent Chinese Revolution in about 1926. He utters the novel's first words, "Hello, ship" as he sizes up the "San Pablo" at its dock. Holman is a very intelligent, industrious sailor who has a love of learning. He knows everything about the steam-powered engines in ships and wants to spend his career deep in the pits of a ship's engine room, where he can be in charge of his own little part of the Navy and not be bothered by the military's love of ceremony and spit-and-polish. This is one reason he is happy to move from the hubub of life in the Navy's large Pacific fleet to the slow life of summer cruises up and down the Yangtze River in a small, slow ship. Events conspire to pierce Holman's bubble. He finds that the small command of the "San Pablo", nicknamed the "Sand Pebble" by its crew, is still subject to Navy protocol because its captain, Lt. Collins, is a by-the-book commander who insists on daily morning formations in dress whites; Holman chafes at spending time standing at attention while his engine room demands his attention. Worse, the regular Navy guys have virtually nothing to do except drill at battle stations according to the captain's whim. All of the boat's jobs have been taken over by coolies. They cook the food, cut hair, and swab the decks. Even the engine room is run by Chinese who run the spotless machinery according to learned imitation. Holman is appalled to see sailors living in this extravagance while the important mechanical tasks are run without strict supervision. This is exasperated by the realization that foreign nationals have permanent quarters on a U.S. Navy ship which could expect to find itself in battle with Chinese brigands on the river. Richard McKenna writes about a world he is intimately familiar with. He was a top student in high school in Idaho where, as a young man, he kept the local library busy getting new books to keep ahead of his ravenous reading appetite. He joined the Navy to help support his family when the Great Depression cut his college plans short. He served a hitch on a Navy gunboat on the Yangtze Patrol in the 1930's, where he heard many first-hand accounts from old salts who had been on gunboats during the 1920's. He continued reading and taking correspondence courses available to sailors while becoming a machinist mate; he would serve for over twenty years, including World War II and Korea. Entering the University of North Carolina in 1953 at age 40, he excelled as a student while studying literature and science; he graduated Phi Beta Kappa. A short story he wrote, "King's Horsemen", about life on a Yangtze gunboat, became the foundation for "The Sand Pebbles", complete with the author's reverential respect for the workings of ships' engine rooms. Reviewer's note: The historical period covered by "The Sand Pebbles" occurs during the 1925-1927 Chinese Revolution. Unrest had existed in China for several generations against the foreign governments which muscled into China in the nineteenth century to help themselves to the country's wealth while holding their behavior accountable to themselves. These imperialist interests represented Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the United States (am I missing anybody?) They operated out of treaty ports where they controlled the trade. Most used river boats, or gunboats, to patrol the major waterways to protect passenger and cargo commerce from warlords and bandits. The U.S. Navy relied heavily on three or four (depending on who you consult) Spanish-built wood vessels seized in the Phillippines during the Spanish-American war. The San Pablo is allegedly modeled after one, the "Villabobos." By the 1920's, these ships were antiques. They were lightly armed, with a single low-caliber deck gun as the sole permanent firepower, augmented by machine guns and other small arms wielded by the crew. Their aging engines were relatively weak, preventing the ships from sailing into the full length of the Yangtze. In the late 20's, after the events of this book, the Navy commissioned six new gunboats which replaced these relics. One of them, the "Luzon", would be the one Richard McKenna served on from 1939 until the beginning of World War II. McKenna places Holman on a gunboat when things were getting dangerous along the Yangtze and in China's major cities. The author doesn't bore the reader with background information, letting the action speak for itself. However, it can be a little confusing to the non historian what is going on here: A powerful nationalist party, devoted to land reform and to expelling foreigners, had been formed under Sun Yat-Sen. His party, the Kuomintang (KMT), fomented unrest among students and workers, with assistance from the Stalinist communist bureaucracy in Russia. He would send his hand-picked successor, the future cold-war anti-communist stalwart, Chiang Kai-scheck to Russia in 1923 to strengthen the KMT's ties to Stalin and Trotsky. Chiang became KMT leader after Sun's death in 1925. The revolution began that year after British police gunned down twelve people striking a Japanese mill in Shanghai. Soon, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Canton would become paralyzed by general strikes. KMT military forces would be attacking warlords in the countryside in an effort to unify the country, while posing a serious threat to the military forces of the foreign occupiers. Communists within the KMT, headed by Mao Zedong, would grow increasingly mistrustful of Chiang's loyalty to their mutual goals, but for the duration of the three-year revolution they would be held within the KMT in order to comply with the wishes of their Kremlin sponsors, who continued to have faith in Chiang at this time. Enough history. The main thing which made Holman a loner was his insistence on doing the right thing, even if it meant bucking the accepted norms. His sense of personal responsibility included his refusal to look the other way when standards were being ignored in a work area, such as when untrained coolies were opening and shutting valves in a ship's engine room. Lt. Collins would not allow him to train more sailors to assist him, but he did allow him to go ahead and choose a Chinese engine room laborer for this purpose. Holman chose the energetic and smart Po-han, and they engaged in a tutoring program, with the master machinist Holman patiently pointing out the proper function of every valve and the route of every pipe in the place. This began the unraveling of morale among the Sand Pebbles, as the crew was known. The head coolie of the ship already was highly agitated at Holman's assertion of authority over the engine room, including its coolie staff; now there would be widespread Chinese resentment of one of their own working so close with a foreigner. The ship's crew hated the idea of a coolie being granted the privilege of learning how a ship operated, and would dislike Holman for treating a Chinese as an equal. Holman would have one friend on the ship besides Po-han. Frenchy Burgoyne worked with him in the engine room. Frenchy would become involved with a Chinese girl, Maily, whom he saved from being sold into prostitution. Holman's existential predicament would deepen as he witnessed the tragedy which would afflict the lives of these three individuals. Another significant relationship would develop, between Holman and the new schoolteacher arrived in China, Shirley Eckert. Shirley would be traveling on the gunboat with Mr. Jameson to his China Light Mission. Jameson was as idealistic an individual as a missionary could be. He believed his mission did not need American naval protection, and he engaged in a bitter debate with Lt. Collins over this issue. Although at this time Holman, representing the rough and tumble sailor's world, would not be seen as a candidate for the affections of an educated lady like Shirley, they nevertheless become close friends in the short time available before she started her duties. She was immediately attracted by his thoughtful way of talking with her, and he started to question what his priorities were after seeing her perspective on life. The story unfolds to the point where nationalist forces threaten to overtake the region where China Light is located, and Lt. Collins mounts a mission to sail the ship to rescue the Americans there. Mr. Jameson and Shirley take the position their good deeds will make them safe from the approaching marauding Chinese forces; Holman makes a decision that could brand him as a deserter, if he lives; and the ensuing attack by the Chinese forces everyone to take drastic actions within a context of high suspense. This is not a book with a predictable or happy ending, making it the more engaging and realistic to read. Holman is given a great last sentence at the end of the terrific 1966 Robert Wise-directed movie of "The Sand Pebbles", starring Steve McQueen, Candice Bergen, and Richard Crenna. Although these words appear at the end of the movie and do not occur in the book, they perfectly describe Holman's situation, when he says, "I was home - What happened? What the hell happened?"

  9. 4 out of 5

    Checkman

    An interesting book written by a navy veteran who was stationed in China in the 1930's. He knew men who experienced the time period covered in the novel and I suspect that Jake Holman is based on the author himself. Richard McKenna was a career Navy man who (after retiring from the Navy) went on to earn a college degree before dying at a young age in 1964. A gifted writer he had the ability to transport the reader to the time and place. He makes the setting come to life. Like Holman the novel ta An interesting book written by a navy veteran who was stationed in China in the 1930's. He knew men who experienced the time period covered in the novel and I suspect that Jake Holman is based on the author himself. Richard McKenna was a career Navy man who (after retiring from the Navy) went on to earn a college degree before dying at a young age in 1964. A gifted writer he had the ability to transport the reader to the time and place. He makes the setting come to life. Like Holman the novel takes a neutral stance on the political situation in China during the 1920's. There is no condemnation of the the U.S. military presence in China nor is there any adulation of the revolutionaries. It's simply a story of a man who prefers machines over people, but finds himself in a situation where he is forced to deal with people. And people are messy and unpredictable. Unlike Holman's beloved engines. Holman would prefer to stay out of all the drama, but events dictate otherwise. Like it or not he's pulled into the whole mess. Both an adventure novel and a drama The Sand Pebbles is an easy read and one that has aged well.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Chrisl

    This time through, I most appreciated how much McKenna revealed about bizarre gunboat diplomacy in China less than 100 years ago. Not at all mechanical myself, but enjoyed how Jake taught Po-Han the spiritual elements of missionaries and steam engines. Did not finish this time, because I knew what was coming.

  11. 4 out of 5

    KennyO

    In the Navy, stationed in Japan, I was waiting for a seat on a standby Air Force flight when it was announced that flight operations were shutting down for 24 hours for runway maintenance. I had time to kill but there was no lounge, no restaurant, no news stand and no one else around. At least there was a room with a cot available to me. I hadn't brought any reading matter but the day's newspaper since I always slept in flight. Pacing the enormous waiting room to give my hindquarters a break I'd In the Navy, stationed in Japan, I was waiting for a seat on a standby Air Force flight when it was announced that flight operations were shutting down for 24 hours for runway maintenance. I had time to kill but there was no lounge, no restaurant, no news stand and no one else around. At least there was a room with a cot available to me. I hadn't brought any reading matter but the day's newspaper since I always slept in flight. Pacing the enormous waiting room to give my hindquarters a break I'd noticed but passed by a seat with an abandoned book; The Sand Pebbles. I recalled that Steve McQueen starred in the movie but I hadn't seen it. The book was still there when I came out of the snooze room several hours later so I picked it up to check it out. McKenna opens by elegantly showing the foundation of his main character. "Hello, ship," tells more about the man than a chapter of prose by other authors would have done. Jake Holman's ideal assignment would be an engine room with minimum human contact beyond engine orders from the bridge and timely delivery of parts and materials. This is a man who sees the world as an engine and deals with it accordingly, for good and for bad. By locating the ship where he does, far upstream, McKenna is particularly effective in setting the stage for the inevitable culture clash and inescapable showdown. The normal operation of the ship must carry on while knotty political and personal puzzles defy resolution. As political tension escalates ashore rancor aboard does as well. Some of the San Pablo's crew are aware of their predicament but not of its depth and complexity. The American Navy and the Christian missionaries in the region are similarly, though distinctly, unwelcome. The rebellion aims to drive both groups out. I've read descriptions calling The Sand Pebbles Shakespearean, slow, colonialist, esoteric, et al. If you're in search of a fast moving plot keep searching. If a protagonist you can identify with is your preference then be aware that this one is not likable but he is admirable. By the time I disembarked at Travis AFB in California I felt that I was meant to have read this book. Highly recommended!

  12. 4 out of 5

    Will Jeffrey

    Among the memorable openings of great novels: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times",and "Call me Ishamle",add to them, "Hello ship." The Sand Pebbles is one of a few novels I reread every 5 years or so. Age and experience lent a new depth to my latest reading. Incidents from the plot I thought I had well remembered were different and therefore somewhat fresh. I saw the movie as a child before I read the novel so I have ready images of all the characters and action,and I knew how Among the memorable openings of great novels: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times",and "Call me Ishamle",add to them, "Hello ship." The Sand Pebbles is one of a few novels I reread every 5 years or so. Age and experience lent a new depth to my latest reading. Incidents from the plot I thought I had well remembered were different and therefore somewhat fresh. I saw the movie as a child before I read the novel so I have ready images of all the characters and action,and I knew how it ended. Obviously, this does not stop me from visiting the crew of the San Pablo now and again, in spite of the tragedy that unfolds for them. I believe my military experience gives me a perspective of familiarity with the characters and the action a non veteran would not posses. I think I enjoyed the book more because of the subtle insights my experiences gave me, but there is no way a non vet would not enjoy this adventure. The reader is provided an accurate discription of turn of the 20th centruy China. The minds eye fills with teeming peasants, dirty water, trash strewn bund, and the heart understands why the sailors there called it home.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Tim Petersik

    This is one of my favorite books ever. But what is it about? On the surface, it's about American sailors in China trying to do their job without interfering with the developing communist revolution. But you can't avoid the tidal wave of history, and get involved they do. There's forbidden love and dangerous love. There's the struggle to do what's right. There's the problem understanding the culture where you're living. It all leads to an exciting and sad conclusion. The writing is crisp and it's This is one of my favorite books ever. But what is it about? On the surface, it's about American sailors in China trying to do their job without interfering with the developing communist revolution. But you can't avoid the tidal wave of history, and get involved they do. There's forbidden love and dangerous love. There's the struggle to do what's right. There's the problem understanding the culture where you're living. It all leads to an exciting and sad conclusion. The writing is crisp and it's easy to immerse yourself here. I forgot I was reading and actually saw myself on the San Pablo in China.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Ming Wei

    Really well writen book, a USA boat patrolling on yangtze patrol in China during the 1920s, a service the USA conducted for quite a few years the purpose being that they were looking after their own interests in the regions, from trade, to church people that were stationed through China. This story is focused upon one boat, and follows their journey, from encounter with Chinese militaries and rebellions of that period. The 1920s were a changing time for China, many fractions fighting for dominat Really well writen book, a USA boat patrolling on yangtze patrol in China during the 1920s, a service the USA conducted for quite a few years the purpose being that they were looking after their own interests in the regions, from trade, to church people that were stationed through China. This story is focused upon one boat, and follows their journey, from encounter with Chinese militaries and rebellions of that period. The 1920s were a changing time for China, many fractions fighting for domination of their lands, influencing the local Chinese people to dislike foreigners. this book is well written, very detailed, a fascinating storyline, adventure, war, changing political climate that is moving in a more brutal direction, rescue all mixed together, anybody who likes the movie will enjoy reading this book, no editorial errors in the book, nice book, a sort of "Sixth sense of happiness" on water. Well wotth reading, a classic, the author style pulls the reader deep into the book, you feel like you are on the boat, the chapters are of a nice length, wish there was more books and it was a series.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Brendan

    This is one of those great, big, impossible-to-put-down works of historical fiction that is guaranteed to send any modern-day historical fiction writer into the dark pits of dispair that they have been born into the wrong era. Why??? Because McKenna got to write a big book full of color and fascinating characters and IDEAS!! My God! the the ideas he was allowed to play with! He writes about steam engineering in a way that compares to Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" Th This is one of those great, big, impossible-to-put-down works of historical fiction that is guaranteed to send any modern-day historical fiction writer into the dark pits of dispair that they have been born into the wrong era. Why??? Because McKenna got to write a big book full of color and fascinating characters and IDEAS!! My God! the the ideas he was allowed to play with! He writes about steam engineering in a way that compares to Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" The other idea he deals with is CHINA!! The Sand Pebbles is about a sailor, a machinist's mate, assigned to a gunboat patrolling on a tributary of the Yangsee River during the 1920s. The gunboat, the USS San Pablo is kind of a floating joke, an old boat acquired as a prize during the Spanish American war, rebuilt with a massive superstructure and an American Steam engine, it represents the furthest reach of American Imperialism in china. The crew live a fat life with almost all the work performed by Chinese Coolees. Needless to say, the get overtaken by events of history. Richard McKenna was himself a China sailor on the Yangsee before the war and he was writing about the generation before him. He wrote one great novel and I don't think he lived long enough to see it made into a blockbuster movie starring Steve McQueen. the movie was great, but the novel was way better. I recommend this book, and the movie to nearly anyone I snaggle into a conversation

  16. 5 out of 5

    Sean Smart

    A very good story - nearly as good as the classic Steve McQueen film.

  17. 4 out of 5

    cool breeze

    This 1962 debut novel was a pleasant and somewhat unexpected discovery. It is very well written in a style that shows some Hemingway influence. The characters are vivid. The protagonist, Jake Holman, is a memorable misfit. The period and settings, 1925 China on the eve of revolution, are very well drawn, as is the plot. The book is 600 pages long, but it is a page-turner. The author shows great promise, but sadly died in 1964 before completing a second novel. 4.5 stars, but I can’t quite justify This 1962 debut novel was a pleasant and somewhat unexpected discovery. It is very well written in a style that shows some Hemingway influence. The characters are vivid. The protagonist, Jake Holman, is a memorable misfit. The period and settings, 1925 China on the eve of revolution, are very well drawn, as is the plot. The book is 600 pages long, but it is a page-turner. The author shows great promise, but sadly died in 1964 before completing a second novel. 4.5 stars, but I can’t quite justify rounding it up to 5 stars to join Tolstoy and company.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Ruth

    c1962. Extraordinary book. It is very easy to read and the pace is maintained all the way. Probably because it was written initially to be serialised in a bimonthly magazine - the Saturday Evening Post. "Four things were important on a ship: bunk, locker, place at the mess table and the engine room. The engine room was most important, because it as Jake Holman's sanctuary from the saluting and standing at attention and saying sir that went with life on the topside. Monkey-on-a-stick life, he cal c1962. Extraordinary book. It is very easy to read and the pace is maintained all the way. Probably because it was written initially to be serialised in a bimonthly magazine - the Saturday Evening Post. "Four things were important on a ship: bunk, locker, place at the mess table and the engine room. The engine room was most important, because it as Jake Holman's sanctuary from the saluting and standing at attention and saying sir that went with life on the topside. Monkey-on-a-stick life, he called that in his thoughts." That is just so descriptive of the motions of ratings on board a ship. This story has not dated at all and I was quite frightened by the descriptions of the Boxers. I did not realise that this book won the 1963 Harper Prize Novel Contest but it was surely well deserved. I agree with every word (if not the grammar) in the following statement: ""What I like about The Sand Pebbles," writes Elizabeth Janeway, one of the distinguished judges of the Harper Prize Novel Contest, "is its vitality and scope, its vivid sense of life and time and place; the way it gets outside people's minds and into what happened. McKenna has done a particular kind of thing and done it brilliantly-written about how the world works and done it as a novelist should, by recreating a bit of the world (a fresh bit) and showing us how it operates." Highly recommended.

  19. 4 out of 5

    James Henderson

    One of my favorite historical novels is The Leopard by a Sicilian Prince, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the last of his line. In 1957 he responded to a lifetime of loving books by taking up writing and telling a harsh, beautiful tale of self-destructive aristocrats in a self-destroying land. He died before knowing that The Leopard had a publisher, or that it would come to be regarded as Italy's finest novel and the best historical novel of this century. In in similar fashion an American,Richard M One of my favorite historical novels is The Leopard by a Sicilian Prince, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the last of his line. In 1957 he responded to a lifetime of loving books by taking up writing and telling a harsh, beautiful tale of self-destructive aristocrats in a self-destroying land. He died before knowing that The Leopard had a publisher, or that it would come to be regarded as Italy's finest novel and the best historical novel of this century. In in similar fashion an American,Richard McKenna, after a thirty-year career as an enlisted man in the U.S. Navy working through ranks in engine rooms, often in gunboats in or near China, responded to his lifetime of loving books by taking up writing in the late 1950s. As a result his historical novel, The Sand Pebbles, has a depth of knowledge of real life in a real place that reminds me of Lampedusa's achievement. Set in China, the book tells the story of an old U.S. Navy gunboat, the San Pablo, and her dedicated crew of "Sand Pebbles" on patrol in the far reaches of the Yangtze River to show the flag and protect American missionaries and businessmen from bandits. I found the novel a great read when it was first published five decades ago and remember enjoying it immensely.

  20. 4 out of 5

    L.G. Cullens

    I read this book maybe back in the 70s. That I remember much of the story these many years later indicates it must have been interesting. I know there was also a movie based on the book, but don't recall how true to the book it was. I read this book maybe back in the 70s. That I remember much of the story these many years later indicates it must have been interesting. I know there was also a movie based on the book, but don't recall how true to the book it was.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Marc Baldwin

    It seems like I give every book that I read four stars, and here's another one. I'd seen the movie (years ago) and was hoping that the book would provide a bit more background and character development. It didn't disappoint. There is so much more to the lead character, Jake Holman, then is touched on in the movie. I also found the subject of "unequal treaties" in China in the 1920's to be an interesting parallel with the current situation in Afghanistan. They aren't the same thing, but some of t It seems like I give every book that I read four stars, and here's another one. I'd seen the movie (years ago) and was hoping that the book would provide a bit more background and character development. It didn't disappoint. There is so much more to the lead character, Jake Holman, then is touched on in the movie. I also found the subject of "unequal treaties" in China in the 1920's to be an interesting parallel with the current situation in Afghanistan. They aren't the same thing, but some of the dialogue in the book between the missionaries and the U.S. Navy riverboat personnel could just as easily be overheard today in a Starbucks debate. A long book, but I never reached a point where I couldn't wait for it to end. I didn't remember the ending, and because of that I easily remained engrossed in the book.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    A marvellous book. And a rare instance in that the movie is also exceptional. I enjoy books such as this, where the main character stands up for what he believes, even if in the end it costs him dearly. That in itself generates in me a feeling of respect. In many ways the theme reminds me of From Here to Eternity. Another book that is probably so good because the author knew first-hand of what he wrote. As a former engine-room sailor though, I don't know that I can quite so excited about steam e A marvellous book. And a rare instance in that the movie is also exceptional. I enjoy books such as this, where the main character stands up for what he believes, even if in the end it costs him dearly. That in itself generates in me a feeling of respect. In many ways the theme reminds me of From Here to Eternity. Another book that is probably so good because the author knew first-hand of what he wrote. As a former engine-room sailor though, I don't know that I can quite so excited about steam engines.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Liz

    The Sand Pebbles is one of my favorite movies and I always wanted to read the book. It is the first novel by a man who actually served on a U.S. Gunboat in China during the 1930's. It is a riviting tale about the Chinese revolution, Imperialism, missionaries, duty, honor and sacrifice. The Sand Pebbles is one of my favorite movies and I always wanted to read the book. It is the first novel by a man who actually served on a U.S. Gunboat in China during the 1930's. It is a riviting tale about the Chinese revolution, Imperialism, missionaries, duty, honor and sacrifice.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Christopher

    Written in 1962, this book relates the "adventures" of Jake Holman, an enlisted engineer on the USS San Pablo, an American gunboat in rural China during the nationalist tumult there during the mid-1920s. The ship was taken over by the US from the Spanish during the Spanish-American War, and is now rather decrepit. The workings of the ship have largely been taken over by native coolies, and part of the plot revolves around the relationship between the non-conformist Holman and his shipmates. The Written in 1962, this book relates the "adventures" of Jake Holman, an enlisted engineer on the USS San Pablo, an American gunboat in rural China during the nationalist tumult there during the mid-1920s. The ship was taken over by the US from the Spanish during the Spanish-American War, and is now rather decrepit. The workings of the ship have largely been taken over by native coolies, and part of the plot revolves around the relationship between the non-conformist Holman and his shipmates. The ship had the nickname "Sand Pebble," and the crewmen were called "Sand Pebbles" (hence the title). The story is meant to be symbolic of the troubled relationship between the US and China when the Kuomintang were trying to establish a nationalist central government. In addition, there's a lot of tension between the crew and the American missionaries in the area, whose lives it's the gunboat's duty to protect, and who resent both the system of "unequal" treaties between China and various Western governments (as well as Japan's) that allows both them and the gunboats to operate in China and the presence of the San Pablo herself. The story is mostly told through Holman's eyes, but also through that of various other characters, in particular the captain of the ship, Lt. Collins, and a young female missionary named Miss Eckart that Holman comes to know personally. Overall, the story was quite effectively laid out and emotionally gripping. The downside is that the somewhat preachy "thrust" of the story sometimes intruded unconvincingly into the thinking of various characters. I recently read someone state that the main criteria for judging a novel are prose, plot, characters and ideas, and this seems a sensible framework. 1) Prose. The writer is decent at characterization through dialogue and at painting succinct pictures of the setting. Engineering plays a fair role in this (particularly in the beginning), and while the author seemingly understands a lot about what makes an aged steam propulsion system function, his elaborate descriptions at times were incomprehensible. Perhaps that was intentional (i could get the gist of what was going on without really following the specifics, whereas Holman "was one", as it were, with the engine (he starts out greeting first the ship and then the engine when he comes on board for the first time)). The author is good at conveying the patois of the sailors themselves below decks (there's a fair amount of swearing, which much have been a bit edgy at the time, though I suspect that the uses of "prong" occur when the author chickened out from writing "fuck") and the "pidgin English" used in speaking to the coolies (eventually, you figure most of it out, though I'm still not sure what "maskee" means). The author has the habit of coining new verbs that are generally transparent enough in meaning and give the text a sort of lyrical feel (despite the coarse content). During scenes of uproar, the author has a sort of staccato style that presents more of a swift impression than a clearly laid out portrayal. At times, this is hard to follow. As an example, there's a battle scene towards the end of the book, and a crucial plot element revolves around the following: "Cutlass high, he leaped down to the short after deck and turned his ankle on a dead man's arm. He went to his knees. The gleaming halberd blade slashed down at him and he slugged a bullet to the bare belly and someone from behind thrust in to take the blow." Taken by itself, that's hard to follow. From the subsequent events you can figure out (I think) what's supposed to have happened, though I still don't really know what "slugged a bullet" is supposed to mean, and "thrust in" is rather misleading. 2) Plot. To some extent there isn't any. The story revolves around the events that take place in and around the ship over the course of a year or so, and there's isn't really an overarching plot, except to the extent that these goings on relate to the connection between the ship and various missionaries at an outpost called "China Light". Holman meets a woman heading out there and her missionary superior on the ship that takes him to his assignment on the isolated San Pablo, and the end of the story winds up there too. Though there's no overt subdivision of the book into "blocks", there are nonetheless discrete episodes. First, Holman has to get used to the system of letting the coolies do all the physical labor on the ship and to become an accepted member of the crew (he doesn't entirely succeed). Then there's his wish to fix a malfunctioning mechanical system and his befriending and teaching of a particularly talented coolie. There are various episodes involving the assignments of the ship, and there's an extended plot involving the amorous life of one of Holman's friends, which comes to a rather abrupt end. To some extent these episodes all cohere with the overall "meaning" of the novel, but in terms of "plot", they make book read more like a series of somewhat interconnected but nonetheless independent "stories" arranged in a chronological order. 3) Characters. Some of the characters like Holman, his friend "Frenchy" Burgoyne and the captain are pretty deftly drawn. Most of the crewmen are also reasonably clearly delineated, though a few don't have terribly distinct personalities and can be hard to distinguish. The missionaries are also drawn reasonably clearly. There are, however, some characters, like the missionary Gillespie and the German Scharf, who seem to be there more as mouth pieces/representatives of certain points of view rather than being full-blooded characters. The female characters seem particularly prone to this sort of "generalization", but even the captain and Holman seem in their internal monologues to be more laying out the author's conceptions than speaking plausibly as characters (especially in the captain's thoughts about duty and Holman's ruminations on the nature of the universe and especially his notion towards the end about his relations with Chinese women, which sounds as if he's talking about a pedophile). Of the native characters, Po-Han, the coolie befriended by Holman is the most human, whereas Cho-jen, the idealist student at the missionary school, is a cardboard caricature of the "noble native" who borders on the ridiculous. 4) Ideas. The troubles of the San Pablo are to some extent a consideration of the nature of US intervention in foreign countries. The author reflects a nascent leftist understanding of the world that would soon blaze forth in the protests against the Vietnam War. The US is presented in a very negative light. The sailors are coarse and vulgar, and the captain's notions of honor, duty, and the personification of the "American nation" in the flag and the navy are shown to be so much absurd cant. The missionaries,on the other hand, are selflessly devoted to the good of mankind, and are only brought into danger in China by the unwanted intrusions of the military force supposedly sent there to protect them. At the end,the missionaries are all noble and the captain is shown as a blind fool who won't listen to them and who ruins everything with his unwavering adherence to wrongheadedness. The book has the sort of neurotic attitude towards nationalism so characteristic of the left. Everything about US nationalism is racist, violent and destructive, while the nationalism of "The Other" (in this instance, the Chinese) is perfectly acceptable. Basically, it's rooted in a sort of self-loathing that instinctively adores anything opposed to the US. One might say that the plot shows that the missionaries are misguided in their adulation of the locals (especially the cartoonish genius Cho-jen), but that's an impression you have to take away only by fighting against the way the story is laid out. That is, you may well say to yourself, "These characters are acting foolishly on the basis of foolish views", but that's not how the wording/plotting would lead you to think. The end of the book is dominated by a lot of talk about the treaties and the power represented by them are just a bunch of worthless paper, and should be done away with by right-thinking people. Mixed up with this are some other "counter cultural" ideas that don't really cohere. Holamn is a non-conformist, who hates regulations, authority and military discipline just for their own sake. That is, there is no particular reason for his feelings, he just doesn't like such things. Indeed, one of his cherished notions is being able to desert and go live in the China Light mission, running machinery and instructing the natives. "Down with the establishment, man" (to use 1960s jargon). There's also a strange feminist theme in the book, which doesn't actually get brought to the readers attention until late. It revolves around the use of whores by the sailors and also their love interests (two of the sailors acquire local "wives" not recognized by officialdom, and Holman and Miss Eckart develop "feelings" for each other). These subplots both have a sort of nascent feminist tinge to them (especially in Holman's realization at the end that having sex with Chinese prostitutes was somehow equivalent to the "rape" of China as a nation at the hands of the Western powers), but there's also a rather old-fashioned "redemptive power of a good woman's love" aspect to it too. To sum up. The story did draw me into it, and I got to feel the lives of some of the characters well and to care for them. As for the topic of the relationship between China and the West, the perspective in the book was interesting and to some extent plausible, but at times it was heavy-handed, and was in any event laced with an anti-Americanism that undermined the persuasiveness of the argument. As for the movie adaptation from the '60s, it's reasonably close to the story (though a fair amount naturally had to be omitted), but I can't get over the feeling that Jack Nicholson should have played Holman rather than Steve McQueen.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Matt Shaw

    "What the hell are the unequal treaties, anyway?" Wilsey said once. "They give us our treaty rights," Ellis said. "We got to stand up for our rights." "What the hell ARE our rights?" "I don't know. I guess the officers know," Ellis said. And there in a nutshell is the crux of the book: the blind defenses of Western imperialism whether in military, industrial, or missionary form and the fates they ran into in China during the Northern Expedition revolution of 1926-7. The main story of the book is a s "What the hell are the unequal treaties, anyway?" Wilsey said once. "They give us our treaty rights," Ellis said. "We got to stand up for our rights." "What the hell ARE our rights?" "I don't know. I guess the officers know," Ellis said. And there in a nutshell is the crux of the book: the blind defenses of Western imperialism whether in military, industrial, or missionary form and the fates they ran into in China during the Northern Expedition revolution of 1926-7. The main story of the book is a strong one, clear in its portrait of the racism, the sheer overarching exploitation by the West in post-Imperial China; the small stories do a better job of getting across the bigger picture than a command-level or political drama would. McKenna does a grand job of making the China of that day come alive. But this book is not without its flaws, and I'd prefer to give it 3.5 stars because of those flaws. A couple are very prominent and I need to point them out; too many of the reviews I see here apparently give McKenna a total mulligan on them. First, this is a Man Book: women are totally glossed. The female lead, the supposedly strong-willed missionary Shirley Eckert, exists only as foil for a couple male characters and keeps thinking how she wants a man to take care of her. Women in The Sand Pebbles are chattel or poker chips. Maybe that's how McKenna saw the world, but I'd like to reference James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific as a similar story, but with its very dynamic women as a counterpoint. Second, and more irritating to me, is the engine. For the first half of the book, the ship's engine and its nuts-and-bolts (literally) consume entire swaths of text; does McKenna expect readers to know all the parts, configurations, and workings of a coal-fired, triple-expansion steam engine? In Moby-Dick, Melville knows his readers don't know the workings of a whaling ship, so he explains the tools and ship configuration, and includes illustrations to make it clear. Melville's "stuff" remains in play for the rest of the book as well, but McKenna just stops writing about the engine altogether halfway in, after having made it a character. Wasted time and space, then. TSP is a really good book, but that's it. And I sure wish it included a map! Thank goodness for online search engines, now. You kind of need a library to follow along.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Michael Adamchuk

    Takes place in 1926 China as the Revolution gets under way and the Chinese want to expel all foreign presence. Protagonist Jake Holman is a crew member on the US Naval gunboat 'San Pueblo' whose mission is to protect the missionaries and other non-Chinese people in the area. Jake is unlike the other crew members, he want to learn about the Chinese culture. He befriends a 'coolie' working in the engine room and a missionary, Shirley Eckert. During his interactions with the crew he does affect the Takes place in 1926 China as the Revolution gets under way and the Chinese want to expel all foreign presence. Protagonist Jake Holman is a crew member on the US Naval gunboat 'San Pueblo' whose mission is to protect the missionaries and other non-Chinese people in the area. Jake is unlike the other crew members, he want to learn about the Chinese culture. He befriends a 'coolie' working in the engine room and a missionary, Shirley Eckert. During his interactions with the crew he does affect their lives for the better. Lots of technical information is included in the book too. It was a good read for me back in the time.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Fabian

    Few things in life are better than receiving a book as a gift and it turns out to really be a perfect recommendation. A kind-hearted Vietnam Veteran gave me this novel. He knew I'm a navy veteran and figured I'd like it. He said it's one of his favorites. Well, now it's one of my favorites, and I can't imagine a navy veteran who wouldn't enjoy this story. Also, it's a fantastic piece of historical fiction, and has stimulated my interest in modern Chinese history, much like "The Three Body Proble Few things in life are better than receiving a book as a gift and it turns out to really be a perfect recommendation. A kind-hearted Vietnam Veteran gave me this novel. He knew I'm a navy veteran and figured I'd like it. He said it's one of his favorites. Well, now it's one of my favorites, and I can't imagine a navy veteran who wouldn't enjoy this story. Also, it's a fantastic piece of historical fiction, and has stimulated my interest in modern Chinese history, much like "The Three Body Problem" has for its readers.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Debbie

    I fell in love with the movie The Sand Pebbles long ago and have watched it many times. Steve McQueen was Jake Holman. But it took a long time for me to decide to read the book. I was afraid it would ruin the film for me, as happens so often. My fears were completely unfounded! I found the book made the movie come more to life as the changes in the film were mostly done to make the film something a 1960s American audience, little educated in Asian history, could follow with little clarification. I fell in love with the movie The Sand Pebbles long ago and have watched it many times. Steve McQueen was Jake Holman. But it took a long time for me to decide to read the book. I was afraid it would ruin the film for me, as happens so often. My fears were completely unfounded! I found the book made the movie come more to life as the changes in the film were mostly done to make the film something a 1960s American audience, little educated in Asian history, could follow with little clarification. The armies fighting one another in the film were Chinese and Japanese rather than the two factions of Democratic vs Bolshevik philosophies within China itself. I find I love the book as much as I do the movie and, like the movie, will again relax with the characters, all so familiar now.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Ben

    The pressure builds steadily, but too slowly for my taste. The second half is stronger than the first, but I was tired rather than engrossed.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Randol Hooper

    For a book that eventually got made into a Steve McQueen movie I was very surprised by the depth of this book. McKenna does an excellent job of portraying China in transition, told from the points of view of the sailors on the USS San Pablo and from the missionaries at China Light, people whose world is literally shattered. The first part of the book focuses on the protagonist, Jake Holman, as he learns to adjust to life onboard the tiny San Pablo after having transferred from the Pacific Fleet. For a book that eventually got made into a Steve McQueen movie I was very surprised by the depth of this book. McKenna does an excellent job of portraying China in transition, told from the points of view of the sailors on the USS San Pablo and from the missionaries at China Light, people whose world is literally shattered. The first part of the book focuses on the protagonist, Jake Holman, as he learns to adjust to life onboard the tiny San Pablo after having transferred from the Pacific Fleet. Everything is going to be perfect, he is going to have his own engine, his own engine room and be able to run it the way he wants to. Except that's not how it is on the San Pablo - most of the engineering work is done by coolies, cheap contract laborers who make their living by skimming off the ship's supplies. Coolies cook, clean, iron uniforms, swab the decks, maintain the engine and do all of the menial work leaving the crew to drill, and drill and drill and drill. The paper tiger of the San Pablo's small crew and it's three pound cannon is the only force guarding American interests - missionaries, factories, mines and more, this far up the Yangtze and appearances have to be maintained no matter how ultimately ineffective the reality may be. By the second part of the book the Chinese have seen through it. The armies of Chiang Kai-Shek marching under the "gearwheel" flag of the Kuomintang are marching north towards the Yangtze while Bolshevist forces are working and agitating along the northern banks of the river. At first the coolies start skimming more and more off the top, and then they abandon the ship, running overboard and swimming towards a blockade of sampans that have started to surround and harass the ship every day. China is awakening to a sense of self-identity that had been suppressed for a very long time and the men of the San Pablo are despised relics of the old China, an abused and tortured China with no sense of pride or self-worth. Perhaps one of the most difficult things for the crew to deal with is the fact that the people they are supposed to be protecting, largely missionaries, are full supporters of the Kuomintang. When the San Pablo is told to stand back and only defend American lives, not American property, it is because of the missionaries who have gone home and lobbied for American non-involvement in China. The reader feels the frustration, anger and demoralization of the crew as they are curtailed repeatedly from executing what is supposed to be their primary purpose - protection of American interests. The Chinese have also learned how to make paper tigers of their own from their Russian advisors and waste no time in churning out propaganda and sometimes outright lies about the San Pablo and their men. There is no place for the men of the San Pablo towards the end of the book - their country has for all intents and purposes abandoned them and there is no place in this new, alien China they find themselves in. One last thing I will mention is that that most readers will be sent running for a dictionary of mechanical engineering by about fifteen pages in. I learned more about steam and marine engines reading this book than I ever expected to.

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