The Sand Pebbles

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
The Sand Pebbles
First edition
Author Richard McKenna
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Harper & Row
Publication date
January 2, 1963[1]
Media type Print - hardcover
Pages 597

The Sand Pebbles is a 1962 novel by American author Richard McKenna about a Yangtze River gunboat and its crew in 1926. It was the winner of the 1963 Harper Prize for fiction. The book was initially serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, and in January 1963 it was published by Harper & Row. In 1966 it was used as the storyline for a movie of the same name starring Steve McQueen.[2]


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 fictional USS San Pablo, a gunboat left over from the Spanish–American War. 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, Motor Machinist Mate Fist Class Jake Holman, the San Pablo's chief engineer, 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."[3] After the crew burn and destroy a war junk, Holman takes a landing party to rescue the missionaries, including teacher Shirley Eckert whom Jake has met several times and come to love. Holman is pinned down and killed, but Miss Eckert is saved.[4]

Reception and review[edit]

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.[5]


  1. ^ "Books—Authors". The New York Times: 30. November 30, 1962. 
  2. ^ Staff. "The Sand Pebbles (1966)". Amazone via IMDb. Retrieved 30 January 2014. 
  3. ^ Pp. 388–91
  4. ^ Shenk, Robert (1981). "McKenna's The Sand Pebbles and the 'Poetry of Machinery'". Critique. 23 (1): 67–81. doi:10.1080/00111619.1981.9934660. 
  5. ^ Arrington, Ward (22 December 2010). "The Sand Pebbles Puzzle". Grove Antiquarian. Retrieved 30 October 2013. 


  • Richard McKenna, The Sand Pebbles: A Novel (New York: Harper & Row, 1962). Reprinted: Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2000. ISBN 1-55750-446-6.

External links[edit]