In the alternate history genre, David Westheimer's "Death is Lighter than a Feather" is relatively obscure, which is a shame because it is among the most accurate, well-written offerings available. In detailing the events of an American invasion of Japan in the absence of the use of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Westheimer shows a firm grasp of strategy, tactics, weapons and geography. However, unlike many alternate histories that focus on the military to the exclusion of all else, Westheimer has simultaneously produced a rich novel full of fascinating characters that truly captures the fundamental essences of the Japanese and Americans, as well as war in general.
Westheimer begins with a prologue that deftly weaves actual events into a world in which nuclear bombs are never brought to bear. Written in the manner of a history text, it quite effectively conveys the events and players that dictated the course of events without bogging down the fiction reader in historical minutia. At the same time, the matter of fact transition from reality to fiction sets the stage quite nicely for the heart of the novel.
Rather than attempting to follow a primary cast of characters through the entirety of the novel, Westheimer has instead strung together snapshots of the lives of average people on both sides of the fighting; an American frogman, a Japanese colonel, a young Japanese girl, an American Marine, etc. The only link between chapters is the occasional return to the history book approach of the prologue in order to detail the larger course of events, and set the tone for the next chapter. In less capable hands, this approach could make for a disjointed reading experience but Westheimer effectively carries through common thematic elements that allow him to cover an array of experiences and concepts without destroying the flow of the novel.
First and foremost among these elements is Westheimer's focus on the common man or woman. By and large, the big power brokers are completely absent. Neither MacArthur nor the Emperor (nor any of his generals) makes an appearance after the prologue. Instead, Westheimer focuses on low ranking officers, and even more so, on enlisted personal. The overall effect of this approach is a ground level view of the fighting that compliments the big picture portions of the text. At the same time, this close-in approach allows Westheimer to consider issues that would be discordant with a book focused on grand strategy. For example, the author considers a Marine who becomes convinced that he is killing the same Japanese soldier over and over again. Westheimer forces the reader to consider whether this is due to shellshock, or if it is a way of rationalizing the horror of killing one's fellow man.
Which brings me to another fascinating element of this novel: Westheimer's intuitive understanding of the causes of war, and particularly, the mindset of the American soldier. His ability to capture what unremitting hatred does to the Japanese, and the consequences that it has on the American soldier is remarkable. His writing is made even more profound in the light of 9/11 and our recent war against Iraq as he eloquently captures the motivation for fanatical, even suicidal, resistance, and the conflict that resistance causes in American soldiers who are at heart disinclined to kill unless it is absolutely necessary.
That said, Westheimer doesn't limit himself to consideration of combatants. His chapter covering a day in the life of a chaplain's assistant perfectly illustrates the contradictory nature of war in general, and the almost perverse naiveté with which America sometimes goes to war. At the same time, his descriptions of ordinary Japanese citizens, particularly women, and the dichotomy of what they see versus what they are told is superbly handled. Westheimer considers what it would be like to live in a world where the "divine" word of the Emperor is at direct odds with what one sees in their everyday life.
Ultimately, Westheimer has produced in "Death is Lighter Than a Feather" the rare alternate history that is historically accurate even as it is good fiction. From his descriptions of the ferocity of hand-to-hand combat, to the serenity of two lovers in a bamboo grove, the author displays a talent that is rare in authors of any genre. At the same time, he successfully ties these fascinating snapshots into a larger picture. Westheimer writes with authority on the invasion that never was, but he also considers war in general, and given the world in which we live, where kamikaze attacks have once again become the norm, it is perhaps more pertinent today then ever.