Yet another small book, 190 pages, that contains wonderful writing and a good story. Francis Vancleave is a very ordinary young man, from a very ordinary family in a very ordinary town in the state of Alabama. He does have one talent though - he can type, and type very well, taught by his equally capable mother. After Pearl Harbour, being a dutiful young man, without much of a future in the town of Mobile, Alabama, he signs up for the army. Because of his rare skills, he finds himself attached to the Officers Personnel Section of General MacArthur's headquarters staff. He goes to Australia, then Manila and finally Tokyo which is where this story begins, as America begins the process of helping Japan rebuild itself.
Van is a bit of an outsider, not an officer but rooming with Clifford who is, and so ends up socialising with other officers as well. Unlike many of his compatriots, Van is also married, a state that he is very neutral about, but surprisingly faithful to. He is a bit of an enigma to his colleagues not only for this, but for a rather strange friendship he strikes up with MacArthur's young son. It is inevitable through rooming with Clifford that he finds himself involved in the latter's shady dealings with the defeated Japanese, and there is a sense through the story that this is not going to end well. However, through the months that Van is in Tokyo, recording the process of rebuilding, transmitting the correspondence, and generally observing what is going on around him, he actually finds himself. He is like a quiet center in the middle of a storm, and the writer Ann Patchett makes this comment on the back cover. I very much felt this when I was reading it - this quiet, thoughtful, ordinary man, in the midst of extraordinary events, other people's disasters and tragedies, and somehow it helps him make sense of his own life.