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The Friendly Isles (Napoleon's World)

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The Friendly Isles is a 1928 American novel written by Calvin Coolidge. Set during the then-ongoing Pacific War, the novel concerned the misadventures of three American sailors aboard the fictional USS Roanoke in the Samoan Islands. A mix of social commentary and dark humor, the novel gained traction due to strong anti-war sentiment in the United States at the time and was criticized from both ends of the political and literary spectrum for being distasteful, unpatriotic (especially since Coolidge was the former Vice President of the United States), obscene and "un-American," while also being praised for being a bold story and a damning glance at the conflict in the Pacific.

In later years, The Friendly Isles has become regarded as a seminal work of American literature, as the crowning achievement of Coolidge's literary career, and has served as an inspiration for numerous other works of fiction, most prevalent serving as the direct inspiration for Takashi Tekugo's 2007 film The Philippine Islands, a modern retelling of the story set during the 2004-07 Filipino conflict, and many of its darker thematic elements influenced films such as Oahu, Born in America, The Jungle and The Watchers.


The novel follows three sailors aboard the USS Roanoke in the Samoas - James Mudd, Tom Crowe, and George Singer. Mudd, the first-person narrator, is a seventeen year-old from Missouri who suffers from intense claustrophobia on the boat, missing the ability to roam the open fields at his leisure. Crowe and Singer are friends from an unspecified city on the East Coast who enlisted together.

The Roanoke arrives at an unnamed island in the Samoas and makes dock, and the ship's captain, Henry Kilgore, sends a landing party ashore to check for Japanese soldiers. The three protagonists cannot find any sign of Japanese troops but do encounter a native whom they accidentally shoot and kill. Crowe elects to dump the body down a pit to prevent other members of the landing party from discovering the accident, fearing a reprimand from the ships' First Officer, Lieutenant Jack Haley.

Kilgore and Haley have an intense professional rivalry that trickles down to members of the ship. Kilgore wants to continue on with the ship's unspecified mission, and it is implied that the Roanoke is alone at sea due to a navigational error on his part. When the men discover a native village on the island full of smuggled goods - including alcohol, a radio and cigarettes - they want to stay, and Haley attempts to use the desires of the men against Kilgore.

The men spend several days on the island abusing the natives and living like kings until Kilgore forces them to leave. The ship sails further north past smaller islands and the friendship between Crowe and Singer becomes increasingly strained over what happened with the dead native.

A few days after leaving the island, a sickness spreads across the ship. Some men believe that it is caused by the natives, and others want to return to the safety of the island. Mudd is unsure whether or not the sickness is in fact a mass desire to return to the confines and pleasures of the island or if it is a real disease. The insecure and jealous Haley begins to plot a mutiny against Kilgore, with the men supportive of returning to the island as his staging ground.

After a terrible storm at sea aborts Haley's first attempt at mutiny, he leads a second one successfully. Kilgore and some of his loyal supporters fight back, and they are all thrown overboard and the Roanoke is turned around to head back to the island. Singer is opposed to the mutiny and Crowe is one of its most staunch supporters.

On the way to the Samoas, however, a Japanese ship attacks the lonely Roanoke and the men fight for their lives, surviving an artillery barrage, preventing the ship from sinking and fighting off a Japanese boarding party. In the fighting, however, Singer is killed, and Crowe openly grieves over the death of his friend.

The Roanoke escapes the Japanese ship after a minor explosion aboard the enemy vessel halts the attack, but the ship is unable to find the island they had previously been to. The sentiment of the sailors begins to turn against Haley this time, and after a landing party determines that a new island is not their previous port-of-call Crowe begins debating a new mutiny.

The heat, the lack of food and the conditions aboard the Roanoke begin driving many sailors to madness and near-cannibalism. Finally, they encounter a new village, which many sailors rape and pillage, and Mudd compares their antics to those of the Vikings. But this village is not the idyllic paradise they had explored before, and a fight begins when Haley attempts to convince the sailors to return to the ship. Several sailors are killed and many more marooned for insubordination.

A second Japanese vessel attacks the Roanoke, and this time it becomes clear that Haley is not a capable commander. The Roanoke this time manages to sink the Japanese ship, but Haley is killed by a sniper and the ship is so heavily damaged that Crowe, the de facto leader, elects to scuttle the vessel. The three lifeboats, with the sole fourteen survivors of the Roanoke, all drift off into different directions.

After several hot days adrift, Mudd and three other sailors arrive at an island during heavy morning fog and they split up to look for supplies. As Mudd forages in the forest, he comes upon an arm sticking out of the earth and discovers the body of the native they buried several weeks prior, and he realizes that he has returned to the island the men of the Roanoke suffered so heavily to return to. Mudd covers the arm and starts to head back to the shore, electing not to tell his shipmates of his realization due to his supposition that the island is in fact Hell.


The novel's primary theme, as described by Coolidge in a 1931 interview, is the descent from civilization into barbarism. A devout Christian, Coolidge viewed the failures of the crew of the Roanoke as a failure to withstand sin, and the effects of sinners (the crewmen supporting Haley) resulting in the toppling of the society and the upstanding pillars that hold it up (Kilgore and his supporters).

As with many other Coolidge novels, the concept of an unreliable narrator is common, and in another Coolidge tradition, the narrator is an observer of the action of other characters and initiates very little of the action himself. For much of the novel, it is unclear what is hallucinatory and what is real, especially towards the end - the idea of a "sickness" on the ship has much to do with the actual prevalence of poor hygiene on American vessels during the war but also a sickness of the mind that Coolidge explores even more thoroughly in his 1927 novel Mr. Fitzgerald.


The book was met with a diverse variety of opinions upon its mass publication by Ballard Books in September of 1928. In Kentucky, the book was banned within two days of its publication when a state censor read the novel and was reportedly apalled at its content, in particular its portrayal of US Navy sailors as "heathens." Seven other states banned the book over the ensuing months for similar reasons.

Two offending passages were the violent assault on the second native village towards the novel's end by the delirious and starving sailors, and also the mutiny scene. The Secretary of the Navy, George Gellar, made a radio address in November of 1928 protesting the novel's content and portrayal of a mutiny aboard a Navy vessel, and accused Coolidge of slandering the armed forces during wartime.

Within the Washington political establishment, the book was met with mixed reception. Antiwar Senator John C. Earnest began encouraging his social friends and constituents to buy the novel and read it, incorrectly believing it to be a realistic account of the actual conditions of war. On the opposite end of the spectrum, one of the war's staunchest supporters in Congress, George Walter Warner, argued that Coolidge should be tried for sedition. President Joseph Robinson admitted to having read the book shortly after his electoral defeat and commented, "I didn't finish it. It was a little tasteless." Coolidge's partner in the White House, former President Charles E. Hughes, read the novel over the course of an afternoon, and had a different appraisal: "I don't think it's meant to condemn our boys in the Pacific. I think it's meant to start a serious conversation about the effects of warfare on humanity."

Many literary critics, in particular New York publisher D. Wade Lawrence, argued that the point of the novel was to take a sober, unfiltered look at the psychology of war and desolation, much like Wilhelm Diess' novel Hubris.

Coolidge himself said shortly before his death that he regretted not having been more steadfast in defending his novel, as he regretted the backlash directed towards him over its content and vehemently denied in his autobiography that he was in any away anti-American or antiwar.

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The Friendly Isles in Popular Culture

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