Shining Sea


By Anne Korkeakivi

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An arresting and absorbing novel that spans decades, drawing us into the turbulent lives of a family in Southern California after the sudden death of the father.

Beginning in 1962 with a shocking loss, Shining Sea quickly pulls us into the lives of forty-three -year-old Michael Gannon’s widow and offspring. Brilliantly described and utterly alive on the page, the Gannon clan find themselves charting paths they never anticipated, for decades to come. Told with a cinematic sweep, Shining Sea transports us from World War II to the present day, crisscrossing from the beaches of Southern California to the Woodstock rock festival, from London’s gritty nightlife in the eighties to Scotland’s remote Inner Hebrides, from the dry heat of Arizona to the fertile farmland of Massachusetts.

Epic, tender, and beautifully rendered, Shining Sea is the portrait of an American family-a profound depiction of the ripple effects of war, the passing down of memory, the making of myth, and the power of the ideal of heroism to lead us astray but sometimes also to keep us afloat.


Book One


     Again it is peaceful, the valley is silent,
Only the birds and the stream have their noise,
The twittering, bubbling sounds of nature.
Apart from this—silence which nothing destroys.

—George Fraser Gallie, 1943

Good Friday / April 20, 1962


A CROWD OF SPARROWS flies up, peppering the California sky overhead. His heart constricts, and Michael Gannon thinks: Today is the day I am going to die.

"Look at that cloud," Luke says, lowering his paintbrush. "It's going to rain."

"It's not going to rain," he tells his middle son, struggling to catch his breath. "Don't give up in the home stretch, Luke. Another hour, and the house will be done."

His heart squeezes; his fingers and jaw stiffen. You'll be all right, corpsman, the doctor at Letterman told him, signing his release sixteen years ago. There were more than seventy thousand of them moving through Letterman Army Hospital in Frisco that year. If you could make it through the Bataan march and three years in the hands of the Japs, you can make it now. You'll be all right.

But heart failure can be a sneaky enemy, quietly waiting to strike the fatal blow. He had plenty of opportunities to see its tricks, barely out of medical school, trying to keep his fellow prisoners alive in the Pacific. People say it's the brain that keeps you alive—Give up, and you are done for—but who is to say that the will doesn't have its home in the heart? And if that heart just won't function?

He climbs carefully down the ladder and leans his back against a panel that has dried. All he and the boys have left is a bit of trim around four windows and under an eave, and the paint should be good for another ten years. Last December, he finished paying off the mortgage.

At least, this.

But no. Death no longer flits overhead, waiting to brush his neck with its frigid fingers, to breathe its mortal fog into his mouth. He left death behind on an island in the Pacific and then on a cot in Letterman hospital. He is strong now. Tomorrow, with the painting done, the kids will dye the eggs for Easter. He'll put the crib back up for the new baby. Barbara will bake a coconut cake to have ready for Easter dinner. Life will continue, as it should do.

The pain is becoming heavier, pressing down against his throat and clavicle. If this is the real thing, the sooner he can get help the better his chances.

Give in, though, and it's as good as giving up.

"Dad," Mike Jr. says, peering sideways at him from atop the stepladder, paintbrush poised in midair. "Are you okay? You look a little funny."

He slides down against the side of the building into a crouch. No. He has lived through so much. Nothing can beat him. He won't let it. He—

*  *  *

1942. He keeps his head down. Any untoward movement, any sign of weakness, any act of petition elicits a bark in Japanese, a bayonet flashing. He will not think of Hughes or D'Auteuil, lying in the dirt a few miles back. He will think of the living. He will think of living. He focuses on the Filipino dust, the detritus of other men who have trod before him along this hellish road up the Bataan peninsula. His socks have worn through, his feet blistering inside his ruined boots. The last halt they were given, he used a sharp stone to remove the leather over his toes, a rude sandal. Now pebbles and dried blood—not his, but from those who couldn't make it, from those who have fallen, from the young blond kid to whom he offered a precious sip from his canteen but too late, the boy fell to his knees, and then the hohei ran up, shouting…—encrust his feet. He takes what is left of his shirt off and wraps it around his head.

Blessed is he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame. Revelation 16:15.

He is but mud, but filth, but hunger.

The trick is to set goals. The abandoned cart ahead. That distant banana grove.

The flies are thick, big as hummingbirds, heavy with the refuse of human carcasses. Waves of them, and then the mosquitoes. He wants to slap at them, to slap the sun, to slap away the sound of men pleading, grunting, moaning. But he can barely move one foot in front of the other.

The fever returns, waves of it, hot and then cold, racking his body, a heavy pendulum swinging in and out of the Ice Age, knocking the fiery center of the earth from one side of his frame to the other. A thousand porcupine quills tipped with burning then freezing poison penetrate his neck, his back, his groin, his calves. A dark murky burning wash pours over him, like swimming through phosphorus.

The world is melting off his face, sliding down his nose, cheeks, neck, shoulders.

His mouth swells so thick and sticky it almost chokes him.

Water. Please, God, water.

Ike! The hohei screams at him, pointing.

A trough of river, shallow and oily and littered with limbs attached to lifeless bodies. He descends as directed, lowers his face into the wet, pushes a corpse away. His body shakes with revulsion and pleasure. The water, the water. He dunks his canteen in swiftly. The hohei shouts at him from the bank above, and he reaches for the bobbing helmet he's been sent down to salvage.

There he is, his reflection looking up at his self.

Climb out of here. Climb up those banks and keep on climbing.

Breathe, stay calm, pray. Believe God does whatever he does for a reason.

*  *  *

His heart doubles over.

He relaxes into the pain, as he learned to do in the Pacific, tossed from one POW camp to another, fed little more than a small ball of dirty infested rice a day, his body riveted with disease. As he learned to do in order to survive.

A veil of sweat breaks out along his hairline.

"Dad?" Mike Jr. repeats.

"Just need a sec, buddy," he manages. "Hot."

"Do you want something to drink, Daddy?" Patty Ann says, stepping out of the kitchen door, pink pedal pushers poking out from beneath her mother's apron. Her dark ponytail shines in the sunlight. "Mommy and I made lemonade."

"That would be swell, sweetheart," he says, forcing his tongue to cooperate. Patty Ann, his precious first child, his only daughter.

And he said unto them, Ye will surely say unto me this proverb, Physician, heal thyself.

But his heart muscle presses down against his rib cage, hard, harder.

And then, just as suddenly, it releases.

His breath frees. The heaviness vanishes.

"Fresh lemonade!" Barbara says, stepping out the kitchen door now, the old white pitcher in her hand. Her round belly lifts the apron she is wearing. It won't be long before the new baby arrives—not more than four weeks. Maybe a second daughter, maybe a fourth boy. They each hope it's another girl. Neither of them says so, but both of them know it.

"Look at Daddy," Patty Ann says. "I told you he wouldn't mind, that we shouldn't wait until they're all finished. The body is sixty percent water—just a loss of one and a half percent already begins to bring dehydration."

"Thank you very much, Miss Smarty-Pants," Barbara says, smiling. "Oh, Michael! The house looks so fresh and clean and bright, like a baby chick. And just in time for Easter, like you promised!"

How beautiful she is. His Barbara.

"Why yellow again, Dad?" Luke says.

"Yellow is a nice color for a house," Barbara says. "A happy color for a happy family."

"I think yellow is a good color," Mike Jr. says.

"Yellow is pretty," Patty Ann says. "Don't you like yellow, Lukie?"

"I never said it wasn't nice," Luke says. "I was just curious why the same color twice. Why not white? Or blue? I'm just wondering."

"That's enough, Luke," Barbara says. "I love the yellow."

The world suddenly upends itself, spinning.

"It has to be yellow," he says, dropping his head between his arms.

*  *  *

1945. She's wearing bright red lipstick, a little too old for her, and a crisp yellow dress. Not a nurse but a local girl, volunteering. A very pretty local girl, with shiny dark hair and a round face.

Where you from, soldier?

When the first B-29 flew over Jinsen dropping supply packages, he and the guys burst open the packets of Spam and chocolate bars and sucked out every last sweet drop from the cans of peaches, cans of fruit cocktail, the sticky liquid dripping down their cracked lips into the sores on their necks. Over three years as a prisoner, he'd lost almost one hundred pounds from his six-foot frame. Anything, everything, was like manna. But it wasn't until he was picked up by a transport plane three weeks later and dropped in Honolulu that he could keep a meal down. For another three weeks, the nurses stuffed him with an endless feast of sulfanilamide, Atabrine, pork, and oranges to fight the beriberi, the malaria, the dysentery before sending him on. Then the mainland. This girl.

Does she notice how his bones still press through his shirt, the dry red patches on his skin, the uneven patter of his weakened heart?

Massachusetts, he says.

Bet you can't wait to get back there. You have a sweetheart waiting for you?

I'm not going back. I'm going to spend the next two years at the University of California in Los Angeles. I joined up the day I finished medical school. But I still have two years to go before I'm a full-fledged doctor.

The touch of her little hand on his shoulder sends sparks all the way down to his bloated ankles. Thank the Lord the swelling in his scrotum has faded.

A doctor! But the University of California in Los Angeles—that must be expensive.

Uncle Sam's dime.

Is that a fact? Well, Lord knows that's the least we can do for you, after all you boys have been through. And then corrects herself: After all you boys have done for us.

She lowers the tray stacked with books and magazines so he can go through them without sitting further up. He takes his time, although he's ready to read anything. The written English language looks as beautiful to him as this girl.

Well, almost. Nothing could be as beautiful as this bright-eyed girl. She is life itself.

She doesn't hurry him. Instead she smiles some more and starts to play at helping him choose. How about this one? she says, holding up a copy of White Fang. He read it as a boy: a fighting dog, cold, capture. He shakes his head.

Or this? She picks up a copy of Life magazine with the words BALLET SWIMMER and a girl in a two-piece swimsuit underwater on the cover.

That looks nicer, he says.

She takes a closer look at the cover image and frowns. No, not this. This looks terrible.

And then she shoots him an even more brilliant smile that lets him know, at least to this beautiful girl, he is by some miracle still whole.

Will you come back again tomorrow? he asks her.

She frowns for just one brief moment, maybe deciding whether it is worth losing her job or skipping school or whatever coming back tomorrow will cost her.

You bet. I'll come back to see you as often as you'd like me to.

And she does.

Her name is Barbara, and she is nineteen years old, one year out of high school and working as a receptionist. She lives at home alone with her folks; her only brother fell on D-day and is buried in Normandy. My mother's family is French. So at least in a way he's home, she tells him, and he understands right away that this is how she survives, that this is the way she has chosen to navigate this world. That she is a girl who will fight to the end, fight to remain cheerful no matter what life throws at her.

That's a good way to think about it, he says.

It's the only way to think about it, she says.

After ten days, he is ready to go outside for a walk. In a light warm drizzle, they stroll through the Presidio to the waterfront.

She leads the way, pointing out the Golden Gate Bridge, Torpedo Wharf, Anita Rock, the yacht club. We used to come down here most every morning when I was younger. Looking for something to put in the pot.

At the yacht club?

If we'd been that type of people we wouldn't have needed to fish for our supper! But it was okay. We'd go before school and, with the day opening up over the water, I always felt…I don't know, like something good might arrive with all the light.

The edges of her mouth turn up. It's the dearest mouth he's ever seen.

Would you miss it? he asks, taking her small cool hand in his.

If what? she says, still looking out to sea.

If you married me and moved down to Los Angeles.

She turns to look at him. Nope, she says, her eyes sparkling like the water at their feet. I wouldn't miss it a bit.

He could kiss her all day, and all night, too, but he doesn't want to make a spectacle of her in public. Not his Barbara. So he kisses her once, just once, and there have been a few other girls, but it's the best kiss he's ever known.

Are you sure you're ready to throw your lot in with an old man like me? Ten days isn't very long to know someone. He is twenty-six years old, nearly seven years older than she. And being in the war ages a man.

She stretches up onto her tiptoes and kisses him again.

We'll have a lifetime to get to know each other, soldier.

She's been in the war, too. Not in the same way, but still.

*  *  *

"Michael?" Barbara says, holding a glass of lemonade out toward him. "Everything okay?"

His head is still light, his arms feel strange, uncomfortable, but the pain hasn't returned. Maybe this attack, whatever it was, is passing.

"I'm the one who is supposed to be asking you that," he says, working to keep his voice even. If he were to lay his hand on her belly, he would sense the heartbeat of his fifth child. For that he doesn't need his stethoscope.

Oh, Barbara! Every night he relives that magical first kiss by the water. Her small vibrant body never loses its warmth and mystery.

She laughs. "It takes more than a baby to stop me. Here: drink."

How cold the glass feels in his hand. Gingerly he lifts it to his lips and lets the cool, bitterly sweet liquid trickle down his throat. In an instant, the hair on his arms—not on his chest, for some reason he's never grown hair there—and legs stands up. His skull prickles. Fingertips of ice crawl up his body, prying into his every pore and crevice.

He sets the glass down on the lawn. But the chill has lodged; an icicle has made it to his right ventricle. His heart freezes up around it.

Is this it? Is it—

*  *  *

1933. Snow squeezes under his feet. White flakes scatter down from the trees and sneak under his collar. His feet slide as he tries to pull Jeanne on the sled up the hill; at twelve, his younger sister is already almost as tall as he is at fifteen.

But there's the house, peeking through the barren oaks over the hillside. Just ten minutes more. He needs to get Jeanne home before she catches pneumonia.

Let me walk, Michael.

No, no, Jeanne. We'll patch up the soles of your boots again this evening. For now, you stay put.

I can warm my feet up once we get home. It's all right. Jeanne jumps off the sled this time, not waiting for him to answer. Her frost-covered mittens reach for the sled's rope. How about this? I'll pull the sled with our pails on it the rest of the way. You run ahead to start the fire.


Come on, Michael. It won't take me any longer than it would for you to pull me on the sled, so if you run ahead and get the fire going my feet will be able to start warming up sooner. They're already soaked.

There's no point in arguing. Jeanne is right. Mother goes on Father's rounds with him now that they have the car, which means the kitchen will be cold and empty, and it'll be up to him to get the fire going and supper started. Mother's the one who learned how to drive the car; she says their father became a different man after going off to the Great War—eight months before they became first-time parents, before they even knew he was going to be born—so she has had to become a different woman. But Father still attends to patients all day. Even though the first months of 1933 have been even worse than 1932 and most people have no cash to pay for his services.

He slip-slides the rest of his way up the hill. He'll have Jeanne read her lessons aloud while he starts on supper. He's going to be a physician, like his father; that's set in stone. Jeanne—she could be anything. She's a genius.

His arms stacked with wood, he uses an elbow to unlatch the kitchen door. Someone has left a basket of beets in lieu of payment on the kitchen table; before going to bed, his mother will carefully mark the beets down in her ledger, and that will be that. The beets are fine. He'll make beet-and-potato soup for dinner. But if only someone would leave some boots for Jeanne instead of leaving beets. Not even new boots, just better old ones than the hand-me-downs from him she's now wearing, their worn soles lined with cardboard. At almost six feet tall, Jeanne is outgrowing her shoes too fast to keep up with.

Stamp up and down, he tells her when she busts in the door, carrying their snow-covered lunch pails and satchels. I'll have the room warm in a jiffy.

He leaves the beets, kneels by the woodstove, and blows hard. Slowly the lick of flame grows. He draws the bench close and, just for a moment, sits on it beside his big little sister, savoring the warmth of the fire.

*  *  *

A bead of sweat runs down his forehead. The chill is gone from his arms and chest. In its place, a ball of heat, rising from his abdomen.

"That cloud's coming this way," Luke says. "Look—if you watch long enough, you can see it moving."

"Daddy says it won't rain." Francis's voice is so soft it's barely audible.

Francis—such a beautiful baby and now such a beautiful boy, always a little apart from his older brothers and sister although only sixteen months younger than eleven-year-old Luke, nearly as close in age to Luke as Luke is to Mike Jr. Last night, he found Francis sitting alone in the half-dark of the garden shed, the book of Greek myths open on his lap. What are you doing in here? he asked.

Francis looked up at him and said sadly, I could never be brave like you, Daddy. Save people.

You mean be a doctor?

No. I mean brave like you were…over there.

Maybe they've been talking about the war in school. Or maybe it was just that book, sent to them at Christmas by Jeanne. All the bows and arrows, battles in it. Like Jeanne, the author, a man named Robert Graves, is a classicist.

You can be brave.

Francis shook his delicate head. I want to be like you, Daddy, but I could never be a hero.

Son, he said, you never know how you'll be until you are tested.

Blood rushes from his heart. Whoosh. And then, snap. The pain is back, this time a blow of thunder in his chest cavity.

"If your father says it won't rain, it won't rain." Barbara's voice sounds far, far away. "That tiny little cloud, Luke? You're worrying over that?"

The world grows dark, very dark. His head hits the lawn, knocking the glass of lemonade all over.

*  *  *

The oak trees on campus while he walks to the science laboratory, books in his arms, friends on either side of him. The breeze that flies through, shattering the leaves.

The rain, cold and alive and green.

*  *  *

"Stay with us, Michael! Stay with us!" Barbara is on her knees, beside him. The bulge of her abdomen hits his chest; still, her arms circle his neck and draw him toward her. "Call an ambulance, Patty Ann!"

His heart is pounding, too loud, too jagged.

*  *  *

A cool breeze. Then calm. He is not sure where he is. He is no longer walking along a body-strewn road in the Philippines. He is no longer passing through winter, autumn, one season after another. He lays his whole body down flat; the breeze brushes over him. The ground beneath him feels soft and mossy. Rain begins to fall, and it is tender, warm, it is the sound of his sister's voice whispering to him to wake up on a school morning with the dawn just cracking through the windowpanes. It is Barbara. Her bright eyes wide-set and lustrous, her swift, light, determined steps, her way of clasping her hands together when laughing.

He is home. He is home.

Book Two


Don't bother Max's cows. Let them moo in peace.

—Sign at Woodstock festival, 1969

Easter Sunday / April 22, 1962


A BROWN-SUGARED HAM is waiting in the fridge. Two dozen white eggs are lined up in two long cardboard cartons for the kids to dye for Easter.

It's not as though you wake up Good Friday morning and think: When I go to bed tonight, my energetic forty-three-year-old husband will no longer be living.

"Well," she says, tucking her handkerchief inside her shirtsleeve and using both hands to propel her belly-heavy body up from the sofa. "The wake will begin in an hour. I better start making sandwiches."

"You don't have to do that," Jeanne says, her voice wobbling toward the end of her sentence. Her sister-in-law's tears are like raindrops hanging off the end of a branch, waiting to fall. The anticipation is exhausting. "We could put out the things brought by your neighbors last evening."

"It makes her feel better to do something," Luke says. He's switched the television on, and filmy images of hundreds of British people halfway across the world in a Ban the Bomb march flit across the screen.

She lights a cigarette. She's going to make sandwiches. She'll use that damn ham for them. "Can't you watch Bullwinkle or something that normal eleven-year-old boys watch, Luke? Where are your brothers and sister? Go find Patty Ann and tell her to help you dye the Easter eggs."

"No one wants to dye eggs, Mom."

If Michael were here, he would tell Luke off for speaking to her like that. She draws on her cigarette so hard the smoke hurts her lungs. But Michael isn't here.

"Okay, Luke," she says. "It was just a suggestion."


  • "This absorbing generational story...explores complex dynamics and captures the mood of different decades in America. Korkeakivi's cogent insight into family relationships and the impact of personal loss, as well as how the times we live in effect who we are, shines through.... Each character's story is rich and excellently crafted.... In the end, Korkeakivi seamlessly brings her themes full circle-heroism, the importance of family, and giving back to the world."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
  • "[An] impressive story about how a family will band together and perhaps drift apart to live on."
    Sarah Bracy Penn, Harper's Bazaar
  • "An absolutely transcendent novel about great love and great loss, with a majestic sweep from WWII to Woodstock to modern times. About the memories that change-and save us-and the connections one extraordinary family breaks and remakes. So alive, the novel virtually breathes."—Caroline Leavitt, author of Is This Tomorrow and Pictures of You
  • "I tore through it. Shining Sea is a beautifully drawn testament to everyday heroism and to the power of the family to persevere in the face of tragedy and turbulent world events."—Charlotte Rogan, author of The Lifeboat
  • "I could tell you how in Shining Sea Anne Korkeakivi masterfully explores the impact grief, and war, have on a family. But I will just say this: I loved this book."—Ann Hood, author of Comfort: A Journey Through Grief and The Italian Wife
  • "When I finished reading Anne Korkeakivi's stirring second novel, Shining Sea, I had to double-check the page count--how could such a huge, multi-generational saga be told so skillfully in less than 300 pages? But Korkeakivi does so, and does it so well, never losing her grip on the reader's attention. The canvas is large, but so are the characters and, most importantly, Korkeakivi's talent which brings them to life. I really, really loved it."—David Abrams, author of Fobbit
  • "Shining Sea is a novel of clap-demanding authorial grace. Its drama is eloquent, its message resonant. The truly remarkable Anne Korkeakivi has written a laudable and relentless novel."—Chigozie Obioma, author of The Fishermen
  • "A panoramic novel tracing generations of the Gannon family illuminates the aftershocks of war in the 20th century.... The effortless prose and vining plot make for a winsome tale of kinship and growth. Endearing characters carry a sinuous story of family bonds."
    Kirkus Reviews
  • "A gut-wrenching story about war, family, and the persistence of memory, Shining Sea will take you all over the globe without so much as leaving your reading chair."—Sadie L. Trombetta, Bustle
  • "An engaging and moving multi-generational epic."—Largehearted Boy
  • "A meditation on family, the long shadow of war over generations, and myth-making."The Millions
  • "With a far-reaching plot...and storytelling that couples pointed restraint with sweeping vision, Korkeakivi covers the not-so-shining moments of the late twentieth century. The result is a family saga that explores the lingering effects of war and the elusive emotions of peace."—Carol Haggas, Booklist
  • "An epic tale of resilience.... Korkeakivi's prose is clear, honest, and unadorned throughout. Excellent at crowd control, she deftly handles the curves and swirls of many characters over a long period of time. The big arcs of a life seem to fascinate Korkeakivi particularly, and she is at her most remarkable when flying high for the bird's eye view, then swooping straight down into her characters' hearts."—Lisa Alexander, The Common
  • "This elegantly crafted, brilliantly structured novel is an intimate epic that speaks volumes about the complexities of shared history, and the way we are all overshadowed by the ever-present past. Possessing immense intelligence and a deeply felt understanding of family as the ongoing struggle with which we all must engage, Shining Sea is a quiet, resonant wonder."—Douglas Kennedy, author of The Blue Hour and The Pursuit of Happiness
  • "If you haven't yet found your perfect beach and/or Labor Day read, fret not: Shining Sea is the family saga you want to read-with a message about war that won't leave you queasy from sweetness. Korkeakivi writes beautifully; gobble this one up and keep an eye out for her next."—Bethanne Patrick, Lit Hub
  • "It'll look good on your bookshelf, and it'll make you cry. It's a win-win."—Lydia Mansel, Elite Daily
  • "[Told] with both epic scope and beautiful minimalism."—Josh Potter, Shelf Awareness
  • "Shining Sea has an impressive scope, engaging prose, and compelling themes."—Emily Burns Morgan, The Rumpus
  • "Memorable, lovely, and highly recommended."—Historical Novel Society

On Sale
Aug 8, 2017
Page Count
304 pages
Back Bay Books

Anne Korkeakivi

About the Author

Anne Korkeakivi is the author of the novels An Unexpected Guest and Shining Sea, winner of the 2016 Lois Kahn Wallace Writers Award. Her short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous publications in the United States and Britain, and she is a Hawthornden Fellow. Born and raised in New York City, she has lived in France and Finland, and currently resides in Geneva, Switzerland, where her husband is a human-rights lawyer with the United Nations. They have two daughters.

Learn more about this author