To the White Sea

Let’s go back to the early 1970’s. I came home from work with a fresh, crisp paperbound copy of Deliverance by James Dickey.

I had stumbled upon Dickey in the public library and had read his first three volumes of poetry. Then he showed up for a reading at the university and I got more of a sense of what he was like: something that helped me understand his poems a little better (later I would drive across western Virginia and see the oceans of kudzu which also helped understand certain poems).


In graduate school Dickey visited one of my classes, reading his poems and answering student questions which he had probably responded to over and over through the years. I sat in the far back corner of the room nursing an intense desire to relieve myself in the men’s room but the dilemma was how to make it to the door, walk in front of Dickey or behind him. I walked behind him with a meek “excuse me” and was humiliated when one of my favorite contemporary poets humorously accused me of disliking his poems so much that I had to leave the room.

So here I was four or five years later, sitting in my living room, starting to read Dickey’s first novel, Deliverance. I had already read the first page several times (very dense prose) and without realizing it, I couldn’t stop reading. Sometime in the early morning I finished the book and slept a short while, emotionally drained.

Now about 45 years later I finally read Dickey’s later novel, To the White Sea. In between the two novels I learned that Dickey wasn’t the nicest of men, especially to his own family. To the White Sea sat on my bookshelves for several years before I finally decided to read it. The theme was similar—a man forced to overcome nature and a escape from those that might kill him—but the narrative was quite different.

To the White Sea is the story of a WWII tail-gunner who must parachute during a raid on Tokyo. He is the lone hero in the midst of the enemy who must overcome the demands of nature in order to escape to the northern islands. Dickey stacks the deck somewhat in that the downed flyer is a survivalist who lived many years in the snow and isolation of Alaska.

Although not as shattering as Deliverance, To the White Sea has plenty of excitement and danger: all in all a good read.

The one thing I kept shaking my head at, however, was that the hero seemed to ignore obvious solutions and stick with his innate sense of rugged frontier know-how. For instance, as the hero gets further and further north, he feels the need for insulated clothing. Rather than procuring the padded duds in the north where everyone he meets might be wearing them, he gets normal clothes from the south, kills a bunch of swans for their feathers, fashions a needle out of bone, sews two pairs of pants together and stuffs them with swan feathers.

To get that bone needle the hero killed a man, stripped the arm of flesh, and chipped off a few bone-splinters. Even an inattentive reader might have considered checking the closet for warm, padded clothes, and even if they still needed to be constructed, perhaps the sewing box of the mistress of the house might have contained a few needles.

It’s the little things that stood out, like needed to conserve matches but never looking for additional matches as he trekked north.

As I said, I’m more familiar with James Dickey for his poetry but his few novels are quite interesting to read. Here is what Wikipedia has to say:


Deliverance (1970)
Alnilam (1987)
To The White Sea (1993)


Into the Stone and Other Poems (1960)
Drowning with Others (1962)
Two Poems of the Air(1964)
Helmets (1964)
Buckdancer’s Choice: Poems (1965) —winner of the National Book Award
Poems 1957-67 (1967)
The Achievement of James Dickey: A Comprehensive Selection of His Poems (1968)
The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy (1970)
Exchanges (1971)
For the Death of Vince Lombardi (1971)
The Zodiac (1976)
Veteran Birth: The Gadfly Poems 1947-49 (1978)
Head-Deep in Strange Sounds: Free-Flight Improvisations from the unEnglish (1979)
The Strength of Fields (1979)
Falling, May Day Sermon, and Other Poems (1981)
The Early Motion (1981)
Puella (1982)
Värmland (1982)
False Youth: Four Seasons (1983)
For a Time and Place (1983)
Intervisions (1983)
The Central Motion: Poems 1968-79 (1983)
Bronwen, The Traw, and the Shape-Shifter: A Poem in Four Parts (1986)
The Eagle’s Mile (1990)
The Whole Motion: Collected Poems 1949-92 (1992)
Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like the Bee

One thought on “To the White Sea

  1. I’ve just added his name to my ‘must read’ list thanks for pointing out a new author to me, Mike. Now I just have to hope he’s available in the U.K. Off to look.


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