The Special Prisoner
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About the author
Jim Lehrer is the anchor and executive editor of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS and the author of numerous novels, nonfiction books, and plays. He was a 1999 recipient of a National Humanities Medal for his journalism and writing. He lives in Washington, D.C.
BONUS: This edition contains an excerpt from Jim Lehrer's Tension City.
Following the enormous success of his two bestselling previous novels, White Widow and Purple Dots, Jim Lehrer takes on a new and controversial subject in this ambitious story about an Ameri-can soldier who, many years after the fact, is forced to relive his harrowing experience in the Second World War.
The Special Prisoner takes its title from the designation the Japanese government gave U.S. airmen held prisoner during World War II--an indication of the severity with which these foreign devils responsible for bombing Japanese cities were to be treated. John Quincy Watson was a skilled young pilot flying B-29s over Japan when he was shot down and taken prisoner in 1945. Fifty years later, now a prominent religious figure nearing retirement, Bishop Watson believes he has long since overcome the excruciating memories of his months as a POW. But a chance sighting of the now equally elderly Japanese officer who repeatedly tortured him instantly transports the Bishop back to that unendurable time, and he finds himself overwhelmed by an un-controllable desire for vengeance. The result for Watson is both a vivid return to the horrors of his past and the triggering of a new series of events that are also horrific--and tragic.
Engaging and emotionally poignant, The Special Prisoner delves into the complicated issue of war guilt and forgiveness, starkly portrayed in the characters of an officer from a country that refuses to admit any wrongdoing and a clergyman who is committed to a belief that to forgive is divine. This is new and controversial territory for Lehrer, and he treats it with passion and respect, while writing in the highly readable, engaging style that is his trademark. This fascinating story of what's fair in war--and what's fair afterward--is a dramatic new novel from the veteran Washington author and newscaster.
Bishop John Quincy Watson, a man of God and grace, was yanked back into his ordeal of hate and horror by a pair of eyes.
They flashed at him from out of the crowd in a concourse at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport-DFW as it was known by those who knew airports. He stopped with a jolt and turned around. He fixed his sights on the backs of people walking past.
None of the backs looked familiar.
He walked toward Gate 32A, where he was to board a flight to Washington's National Airport.
The bishop hadn't seen the face, only the eyes.
Whose were they?
Then he knew. It came to him cleanly, clearly, and absolutely. The eyes were those of a man he knew fifty years ago as "the Hyena." He knew it with a crushing certainty that was as unshakable as John Quincy Watson's faith in the Almighty.
For reasons of exercise and pride, the bishop seldom used the motorized carts provided at airports for the old and lame, choosing instead to make his way slowly on his own with his ivory-headed cane. He was seventy-one years old and retired from his post as the Methodist bishop of San Antonio, Texas, but he did not see himself as an old man. Not yet. He was still active, traveling extensively around the world as a guest lecturer and preacher. He was on his way now, in fact, to address an ecumenical prayer breakfast at a large Methodist church in one of Washington's Virginia suburbs.
Now he did raise a hand to hail one of the carts, which fortunately had no other passengers. He told the young man driving that he was in a terrific hurry to get to the opposite end of the concourse.
They beeped their way through the crowd of people and their various rolling suitcases. "Right here, son," said the bishop to the cart driver after several minutes. "Let me off right here, please."
There he was, the man with the eyes. It was him-his height and build, his bearing and presence. There he was handing his boarding pass to a female flight attendant at the grate. There was the man John Quincy Watson would never, ever forget. Watson walked as fast as he could, but the man was down the boarding corridor and out of sight by the time the slow-moving bishop reached the flight attendant. He ignored the other passengers in line and went right up and asked, "Was that man's name Tashimoto?"
The flight attendant, a forty-ish woman with short brown hair, looked at him as if he were a potential bomber or masher. But after a second or two of further inspection she must have concluded he was safe because she looked down at the stack of tickets on the stand in front of her. "Yes, that's what it says
on the ticket-T-a-s-h-i-m-o-t-o ' " she said. "Now, if you'll
move out the way, sir, so we can resume boarding?"
Bishop Watson said, "Where is this plane going, please?"
"To San Diego," she said, pointing to an electric sign near the door that said just that.
"I'd like a ticket, please."
"We're already overbooked, but see the agent at the counter.)
The agent confirmed that there were no seats on the plane, and Watson couldn't convince him or the attendant at the gate to let him on for just a few minutes to simply look at the passengers. He told them that he saw a man board whom he had known many years ago.
Against the rules, they said. Permission denied.
In a few minutes the boarding door was closed. Bishop Watson stayed right there and watched through the large plate-glass window as the plane-he recognized it as a Boeing 757-backed out from the gate. Now and then he had wondered what it would be like to fly one of these jetliners compared with Big Red, his B-29, and the other propeller planes he had flown in World War 11. But it was only an occasional wonder. In fifty years he had never even entered the cockpit of any kind of airplane.
By the time he started walking again toward Gate 32A, he realized that it was already ten minutes past the departure time of his flight.
It didn't matter. The Hyena was alive! The little Jap was here in America, on a plane for San Diego!
Bishop Watson felt shame for thinking of the Hyena as a Jap. But it was an unavoidable reflex. For the bishop, this man could never be anything but a Jap.
In the press
Advance praise for The Special Prisoner
"This account of an American prisoner of war in
Japanese hands rings with truth. Lehrer, himself a Marine,
has captured the reality of what it was like. The brutality, the sadism, the horror, and, above all else, the triumph of will that got
the prisoners through the experience are all here. Lehrer's book is honest, factual, and a tribute to the men who endured and
prevailed over the worst existence imaginable."
--Stephen E. Ambrose
"Riveting...I couldn't put this book down! The Special Prisoner delves into the full complexity of human evil and revenge."
--Iris Chang, author of The Rape of Nanking
"Gripping...a harrowing novel of redemption and revenge."
From the Hardcover edition.