Like many military memoirs, Paper Dragon, Wooden Ship follows a year in the life of a Naval Officer. Pat Dillan arrives in Sasebo, Japan in 1969, shortly after the North Korean's captured an intelligence ship, The Pueblo. He is assigned to her sister ship, The Banner. His life is complicated by the decay of his marriage and the changing political perspectives of the times. When his wife leaves him during a trip back home, he returns to Sasebo to a new rank, new assignment and a new love interest. It's a familiar story written with a twist -- it's written in Navy, not English -- and it's a novel, not a memoir.
This story is unusual in that both men and women will find it romantic and intense. There's action, political intrigue, nostalgia for another time and place, the relationship a man, a woman, the Navy, and war -- both hot and cold. The reader can almost hear Mick Jagger singing, "You Can't Always Get What You Want" in the background as Pat struggles to balance his personal and professional lives. The author allows his characters to define themselves through their words and deeds. Their conversations are real, amusing, and convoluted -- just like everyday folks. CDR Wells peoples his novel with likeable Americans and allows the villains of the time to create conflict for the good guys. Most interestingly, the Navy seems more like a character than an institution -- warm mother, strict father, petulant lover, demanding professor, intrusive in-law all wrapped up into one. It's a daring ploy by the author, but in the end, it creates an intriguing and unusual story.
The cover supports the author's intent with the look and feel of a non-fiction publication -- with a faded background photograph of a Japanese pagoda and silhouettes of Pat's two ships in the foreground. This matter-of-fact approach makes this historical novel seem more real than most -- like the personal story of your next door neighbor -- the super-intelligent one that speaks in a tangled dialect of alphabet soup and hides his heart behind a short haircut and shiny black shoes.
While the plot is compelling and the characters intriguing, this book is not an easy read. The author recognizes that the average reader might have trouble translating inexplicable prose like, "Arrival at Kure Sunday morning was a non-event. But next morning it got serious: much pomp and circumstance when the JMSDF mine flotilla four striper came aboard. Meanwhile, the MINEFLOTONE officers, LT and above, went to do a pre-ex inspection on the 4 Hatsushima class coastal JMSDF sweeps taking part in the minex."
To be fair, CDR Wells provides lots of footnotes and goes the extra mile with an Appendix to help decipher Naval ranks. However, most of us landlubbers may spend as much time looking up terminology like EOD, Mike Boat, and LCM-6 than actually enjoying Pat's adventures in war and love. However, this book will enchant those who live and love the Navy -- and after about fifty pages, a newbie will grasp the lingo enough to get a kick out of it too.
Reviewed by: Joyce Faulkner (2010)
US Navy operations aboard the sistership of the ill fated USS PUEBLO (AGER-2); and, Navy Market Time and Riverine combat and minesweeping during the Vietnam War 1968-1970.