The Cloud Atlas

by Liam Callanan

Published by Delacorte Press

368 pages, 2004



When the Enemy Tried to Kill Us With Balloons

Reviewed by David Abrams


There is a book on my office shelves called The Forgotten War: A Pictorial History of World War II in Alaska and Northwestern Canada which describes the battles between American and Japanese forces on the tiny Aleutian islands of Attu and Kiska. Lives were lost on that bloody, rugged terrain, but very few people today remember that part of the war which took place on U.S. soil. Mention the word "Attu" and most folks will say, "Gesündheit."

But there was another instance of enemy action in the U.S. that's even more forgotten. On May 5, 1945, Rev. Archie Mitchell and his wife took a group of children from their Sunday school on a picnic in the woods near Bly, Oregon. One of the children found an unusual object on the ground and the group gathered around. Rev. Mitchell, who was still unloading food from the car, started to shout, "Don't touch it!"

But it was too late. One of the boys tried to move the metal object and triggered an explosion that killed Mitchell's wife and all five of the children. They were the only known fatalities on the U.S. mainland from enemy attack. The cause? A hydrogen-filled balloon made of rice paper carrying a bomb which had been launched from Japan, drifting across the Pacific on the jet stream. It was a cleverly-designed terror campaign that never did much real damage, apart from the tragedy of those six deaths and temporarily knocking out the power to a nuclear reactor in Hanford, Washington.

To prevent an Orson Wellesian panic from spreading (and to deny the Japanese the satisfaction of knowing their balloon bomb campaign had succeeded), the War Department had imposed a media blackout. In the years following the war, the public gradually learned that nearly 9000 balloons made of paper or rubberized silk and carrying antipersonnel and incendiary bombs were launched from Japan during a five-month period, to be carried by high-altitude winds more than 6000 miles eastward across the Pacific to North America. I'm willing to bet this is the first time most of you reading this review have heard of the Japanese balloon bombs.

Read Liam Callanan's new novel, The Cloud Atlas, and you'll never forget those flimsy, deadly balloons. First-time novelist Callanan not only sheds light on this obscure piece of World War Two history, but does so in a way that turns the story of a bizarre military operation into a masterful meditation on faith, love and sacrifice.

Callanan sets his novel in the wilds of Alaska, where several of the balloons landed in the spring of 1945 (a museum in Juneau has pieces of one of the balloons, recovered after it detonated). The Cloud Atlas is narrated by Louis Belk, now a Catholic priest in the Alaska outback, who tells the story of how he first came to the Last Frontier as a bomb-disposal sergeant chasing after the mysterious, elusive balloons.

He arrives at Fort Richardson, near Anchorage, knowing little of his wartime mission, but soon learns he's working for an officer who's a little off-kilter. Okay, make that a lot off-kilter. Captain Gurley is on a single-minded quest to track down the Japanese balloons before they land and kill more Americans; a map in his office bristles with pins which mark sightings across the Western states (the balloons drifted as far south as Mexico and as far east as Michigan). Gurley -- a Princeton graduate who lost his leg in an earlier bomb-disposal accident -- is fascinating in his lunacy, like a balloon-obsessed Ahab (the missing leg is surely no coincidence). Gurley is convinced the Japanese have a larger, more insidious plan for their balloons; he believes future payloads will carry virus-laden fleas to the United States and start a plague on the order of the Black Death.

As Louis recalls his wartime experiences with his wild-eyed commander, he says:

Replaying these memories, it seems unmistakable now to me how completely mad he was. And I don't mean madness like the kind that doctors like to cure nowadays with dollops of prettily colored pills. I mean old-fashioned, Edgar Allan Poe-type madness, incurable but for a gun placed at the temple.

As the two chase after the ghostlike bombs, there is another character who figures prominently in the plot: Lucy, a Yup'ik woman who has left her Alaska Bush village to come to Anchorage where she turns to prostitution and fortune-telling to earn a living.

Of course Louis falls in love with her; and of course she later reveals she's also Gurley's lover; and of course she'll tie the whole book together with a mysterious connection to the balloons and a Japanese man named Saburo who'd earlier been sent on a scouting mission to Alaska. Those are the kind of things one might expect to find in a historical romance of this sort (Corelli's Mandolin and Snow Falling on Cedars also come to mind). The unexpected pleasures of Callanan's book are found in the way he lyrically turns the love triangle into a portrait of the war's larger struggles: the impetuous officer who wants victory at any cost, the enigmatic woman from another culture and the once-zealous now-disillusioned 18-year-old soldier who finds himself torn between the two sides.

Callanan confidently unfolds his complex story at a pace that rarely flags in energy or beauty. The only part of the narrative that feels artificial is the modern-day frame where the elderly Louis tends to his dying friend, a Yup'ik shaman named Ronnie who refuses to go gently into that good night. These mercifully brief sections are neither interesting nor convincing. More compelling are the flashbacks that comprise the bulk of The Cloud Atlas. Callanan excels at descriptions of wild Alaska, bomb-disposal procedures and wartime paranoia.

Here, for instance, is one example of how he skillfully blends fact with poetry as Louis describes the Japanese bombs:

A balloon of paper and potato glue, a wedding cake of firecrackers and aluminum. Designed to silently ride the winds across the Pacific, barometers triggering ballast drops when necessary, and then, finally, descend into the impregnable United States mainland, setting forest fires, killing soldiers, civilians. Ingenious. Yes, I'll use the word. ... The Japanese didn't just send one balloon. Over the course of a few months, beginning in the fall of 1944 and ending in the spring of 1945, they launched close to ten thousand bomb-laden balloons, an effort which, by its end, had required the concerted effort of millions of people.

Like his subject matter, Callanan's words drift whisper-quiet across the page, carried along by thermal air currents, until, every so often, there comes a scene of shattering, explosive impact. The payload of this impressive debut novel is not easily forgotten. | May 2004


David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.