The Sand Pebbles
is a 1962 novel by American author Richard McKenna
Richard Milton McKenna was an American sailor and writer.-Early life:McKenna was born in Mountain Home, Idaho, on May 9, 1913. Seeking more opportunities than could be found in such a rural part of the country at the height of the Great Depression, McKenna joined the U.S...
about a Yangtze River gunboat
The Yangtze Patrol, from 1854 to 1945, was a prolonged naval operation to protect American interests in the Yangtze River's treaty ports. Initially the patrol was carried out by ships of the United States Navy's East India and Asiatic Squadrons. In 1922, the "YangPat" was established as a formal...
in 1926. It was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post
for the three issues from November 17, 1962 through December 1, 1962. The author completed it in May, 1962, just in time to enter it in the 1963 Harper Prize Novel Contest. Not only was it picked over 544 other entries for the $10,000 first prize and accepted for publication by Harper & Row, but it was also chosen as the following January's Book-of-the-Month Club selection.
Richard McKenna served aboard a Yangtze River gunboat in 1936 but set the novel a decade earlier, during the Nationalist Northern Expedition
of 1925-1927, aboard the USS San Pablo
, a gunboat left from the Spanish-American War
The Spanish–American War was a conflict in 1898 between Spain and the United States, effectively the result of American intervention in the ongoing Cuban War of Independence...
. The phrase "sand pebble" is a pun on the boat's name; thus, the sailors who serve on her are the sand pebbles
The novel describes a life of boredom and sudden battle action, but the chief conflict is between the traditional western ideas which saw China in racist and imperialist terms and emerging nationalism. The protagonist, engine mechanic Jake Holman, teaches his Chinese workers – he refuses to call them “coolies”– to master the ship’s machinery by understanding it, not just “monkey see, monkey do.” The ship is sent to save the China Light Mission from anti-foreign mobs, setting off a debate: “No man who favors the unequal treaties has the right to call himself a Christian!” Others reply “It is time for the Society for Propagation of the Gospel to step aside. It is time for the Society for Propagation of Cannonballs to bring them to their senses.” (388-91) After the crew burn and destroy a war junk, Holman takes a landing squad to rescue the missionaries, but is pinned down and killed.