Photo: Traditional Thai boats on beach

Cross Currents brings to life the idyllic Thai island of Ko Phi Phi Don during the 2004 tsunami.

Photograph by Christian Kaiser, laif/Redux

By Don George

Book of the Month: Cross Currents, by John Shors

The 2004 tsunami that ravaged 11 countries in and around the Indian Ocean would seem a difficult subject for a novelist to tackle. But one of the triumphs of this winning new book is that author John Shors manages to convey the devastating complexities of that event on a human scale.

Cross Currents is set on the Thai island of Ko Phi Phi Don, a once overlooked outpost that was discovered by backpackers in the late 1980s and became a popular destination, with attendant touristic development, in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The island comes to life through the interweaving tales of nine characters—a three-generation family of six that owns and manages a small resort of thatch-roofed beachfront bungalows and three Westerners staying there—during 11 fateful days in December 2004.

Devoting one chapter to each day, Shors masterfully evokes the bounties that have drawn travelers to the butterfly-shaped island: the massive limestone cliffs, palm trees, half-moon white-sand beaches, and limpid azure seas; the arresting underwater attractions, from basketball-size brain coral and green moray eels to translucent, diamond-shaped squid with oversize eyes; and the glory of its sunsets, the light changing colors “as if it were penetrating stained glass at an ancient cathedral, illuminating the island and sea in scarlet and amber.”

He also takes us off the well-trod tourist trail to a locals’ village in the interior, a place of “dilapidated one-story wood-and-tin homes,” raucous with roosters, cats, and babies, where mothers mend fishing nets and wash clothes in steel tubs.

In the first eight chapters, Ko Phi Phi Don is concocted so fulsomely that I felt transported to its shores in the Andaman Sea. Then, in the ninth chapter, Shors recreates the devastating, life-overturning tsunami in prose that is stunning and profoundly moving.

It is testament to the power of his depiction that I felt my own world wrenched apart in these pages—and that I finished the last two chapters, portraying the tragedy’s physical and emotional aftermath, more deeply desirous than ever to visit this rich and resilient place.

New Book Roundups:

American Vistas

A day laborer in the early 20th century experiences the changing Pacific Northwest—and the often lonely beauty of its pine forests and trout-filled rivers—in the new novella by National Book Award-winner Denis Johnson, Train Dreams. Jonathan Raban’s essays on living in his adopted hometown of Seattle, being an Englishman in America, visiting Hawaii, and more are collected in Driving Home: An American Journey.

Inside Strife-Ridden Countries

In Never the Hope Itself: Love and Ghosts in Latin America and Haiti, former NPR Latin America correspondent Gerry Hadden finds the human heart and common struggle in recent regional events as he offers up the stories behind his coverage of Mexico’s 2000 democratic transition, rebellion and turmoil in Haiti, gun smuggling to Colombian rebels, and illegal immigrants’ perilous slog to the U.S. Waiting for Robert Capa is based on the true story of photojournalists Gerda Taro and Robert Capa, both Communist Jewish exiles who traveled to Spain to document the Spanish Civil War, which began 75 years ago this year. Spanish novelist Susana Fortes traces their romance and its tragic end.

One Last Thing:

A Cabin in the Country

If you have read Walden and are of a certain solitary and philosophical bent, you have almost certainly dreamed of making your own Henry David Thoreau retreat: venturing into the quiet of the woods, building a little cabin by a pond, and just communing deeply with nature and yourself for a spell. In his graceful new book, Cabin, Lou Ureneck takes this dream to the max, buying five acres in western Maine and setting out to build his abode by scratch, with the help of his younger brother. Though the ensuing journey is beset by doubts and difficulties, Ureneck perseveres. The result is not only a sturdy home, but also an inspiring literary construction that lovingly illuminates the depth of family bonds and the character and culture of the New England countryside.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

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