Single Pebble, A

by John Hersey
List(s):"Racine Library List"
Category: "Fiction - General"
Pages:181
Year of Publication:1956
Date Added:12/17/2005
Date Read:12/17/2005
Notes:From the dust jacket: The central character is a young American engineer sent to China in the twenties to inspect the unruly Yangtze River for possible locations for a great dam. He travels up through the river's fantastic gorges on a junk hauled by forty-odd trackers, and he is pulled, too, into the settled, ancient way of life of the people of the junk — the owner, a Szechuan man of rocky determination; his young wife, Su-ling, who voices the myths and poetry of the terrible river; the cook, a stocky man who looks like a rogue, half mystic, half cynic; and, above all, Old Pebble, the head tracker, a strong young man despite his nickname, a being wholly given to the river along which he toils. The interplay of the lives of these river people with that of the young American engineer comes to a tremendous dramatic climax at the awesome, cliff-hemmed depths of Wind-Box Gorge.
My Rating: 5

Reviews for Single Pebble, A

Review - Single Pebble, A

The unnamed narrator is a young engineer who goes to China to explore the Yangtze River looking for a place for a dam. He takes passage on a junk owned by a trader known as Old Big who is traveling with his young wife Su-ling. On the up-river trip, the junk has to be pulled by a team of trackers who walk along the river and pull the boat with ropes. The trackers are led by an illiterate man called Big Pebble.

At first, the engineer things Big Pebble is a simple laborer without ambition, but he soon realizes the man is more complicated than he thought, although his entire life is wrapped up in the river and his work. Su-ling befriends the engineer in her fashion, but he realizes that her loyalty is for her older husband and her love is for Big Pebble. In time, Big Pebble comes to dislike the engineer because he sees him as a threat to the river and his way of life.

While pulling the junk through a dangerous rapids, Big Pebble slips. The choice is to cut his rope and let him fall into the river and drown or risk the junk and everybody aboard. Old Big orders the rope cut, then takes off in a small boat on an unsuccessful attempt to save Big Pebble.

When the junk arrives at its destination, the engineer realizes that he really hasn’t connected with any of the Chinese. Looking back on the experience, he felt a new feeling. “This strange new feeling was, at any rate, more a physical sensation than anything else in those first moments, an upsurge in my chest of elation-with-despair, of a palpable ache that somehow gave me comfort. I know now, for I have experienced it often, that this feeling was really a kind of wishing — that things could be different, that I could be a better person, that the world could be a better place; and with the wishing, a feeling of sadness, regret, and even, it may be, of hopelessness.”

I know that feeling, although as a Christian I have the hope that things will soon enough be a whole lot better. I didn’t care for the rest of the book much. I thought it was rather dull and without much of a point other than that life is pointless and there’s nothing to do about it. The narrator mentions at the end of the book that his recommendation for the dam went nowhere, and his career was a flop.

Review - Single Pebble, A

Before there was Carpe Libra, there was a list my sister picked up from the Racine, Wisconsin library of classics everyone should read. I began that list, but decided I didn’t care for it and created my own (which eventually became the Carp 500). Not long ago, I found the Racine list and added up the books I’ve read. It turns out I’ve read 156 and have 50 to go. I decided to go for it. That’s why I read this book. I now have 49 to go.

I don’t intend to give away any more of the plot than I have to, but there was one part that grabbed me a little bit. At the end of his trip, the young engineer who narrates the book says, ““This strange new feeling was, at any rate, more a physical sensation than anything else in those first moments, an upsurge in my chest of elation-with-despair, of a palpable ache that somehow gave me comfort. I know now, for I have experienced it often, that this feeling was really a kind of wishing — that things could be different, that I could be a better person, that the world could be a better place; and with the wishing, a feeling of sadness, regret, and even, it may be, of hopelessness.”

I know that feeling, although as a Christian I have the security that things will soon be a whole lot better. I didn’t care for the rest of the book much. I thought it was rather dull and without much of a point other than that life is pointless and there’s nothing we can do about it.
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