In honour of the day, I thought that I'd post a few pictures of my copy of Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, which belonged to my maternal grandmother's family. It was my first really "old" book, and it started my fascination with collecting vintage books. There's no copyright date in it, so I don't know the exact age of my Ivanhoe, but Collins Illustrated Pocket Classics began being printed in 1903 and switched from a cloth-bound cover to leather in 1911, so I assume that my copy (cloth bound) is from sometime in that period. The story is, of course, amazing and the illustrations are lovely.
The High And The Mighty was written in 1953 by Ernest K. Gann. Gann was a prolific writer of novels, nonfiction articles, and screen plays. The High And The Mighty is probably his most well-known novel- that, or his earlier work, Island In The Sky (1944). Both of these books were made into movies (The High And The Mighty film stars Charlton Heston). Gann was a commercial pilot himself for a number of years and drew on his experiences when writing his novels. The High And The Mighty was rooted in an incident which occurred when he was piloting a flight from Honolulu to California. The stewardess noticed that a vibration of some sort was causing the cutlery on her tray to rattle. Gann inspected the tail area but could find nothing wrong; the problem was eventually traced to a missing bolt which almost caused them to lose control of the plane. The parallels are obvious. Incidentally, Gann also wrote a memoir about his years as a pilot called Fate Is The Hunter, which was also made into a movie and is considered to be one of the best books ever written on aviation.
I first read The High And The Mighty years ago when I was on summer break and babysitting two youngsters. Their family had a lovely cottage on the lake and we went there almost every day, the kids spending hours swimming while I lay on the dock, making sure they didn't drown and working my way through many of the books on the cottage's well-stocked shelves. I read Tom Clancy for the first time that summer, and also Ernest Gann. The book left a lasting impression on me, for a number of reasons I'll get into in a minute, and I thought of it occasionally- especially when flying- though I hadn't read it in years. It is out of print now, but thanks to Amazon, I tracked down a used copy and purchased it online a couple months ago. One reason I really enjoy this book is Gann's knowledgeable writing; he very obviously knows the aviation industry of that time period, inside and out, and imparts that knowledge in a way which is illuminating without being overly technical. The reader is made to understand how dire the situation is without being swamped with too much information. Gann also has a gift for depicting tension and fear, and how these things manifest themselves both physically and mentally in different people. It causes the reader to contemplate how one would react and behave, faced with a similar situation. The novel also skillfully navigates through the three main locations in which the story plays out: the cockpit, the passenger cabin, and the airport in San Francisco. Gann divvies up the time spent in these places wisely, each scene furthering the story but never at the expense of other elements. All the scenes complement each other. On board the plane, you also get a kind of us/ them feel as the situation plays out. The flight crew knows what is wrong and how low their chances of survival are. They have to tell the passengers something approaching the truth, but must decide just how honest to be with them. On one hand, they have a right to know what they're facing, but the crew has to weigh that consideration against the possibility of dealing with hysterical passengers when they need to have their attention focused elsewhere. They choose to underplay the danger, though a number of the passengers see this for what it is.
Ernest Gann is very good with writing characters. Despite there being a significant number of them, he gives enough background or dialogue for the reader to feel you know these people and understand their motivations, without it ever feeling like a tedious information dump. His characters are also very human; even when they behave in ways we don't approve of, it is easy to comprehend why they do so, or at least recognize that certain people would and do act in those ways. I think that this is ultimately makes The High And The Mighty so compelling. On one level, it's a very suspenseful tale of pilots trying to land their crippled airplane without killing everyone on board and also people on the ground. It is, however, also the story of a number of complete strangers who are brought together in a small, enclosed space which they can't get out of, and then are faced with what appears to be imminent death. It's fascinating to observe how each reacts to the situation: some as you would expect considering their dispositions, but others who either surprisingly rise to the occasion or crumple unexpectedly. Again, this impels the reader to consider how one would personally react to being suddenly thrust into such a situation. If you knew that you probably only had a couple of hours left to live, what would you think about? Time also plays a large part in the narrative. Obviously, the tension is ratcheted up as the flight crew attempts to race against the clock, playing the odds about how long they can keep the plane in the air. Because the crisis doesn't happen right away, however- they have a number of hours before they must attempt to either ditch in the ocean or make for the coast- time becomes a factor in another way. For some these hours just provide more time for them to slowly lose their nerve and panic. For quite a few others though, this time spent knowing that they may die soon makes them examine their lives and the problems, pains and resentments which seemed previously to loom so large. The situation they're in has the effect of putting things in perspective and making them realize just what is important and what isn't. The High And The Mighty works as a work of suspense, but what makes it memorable is its very human characters, faced with what for many is their greatest fear. It makes for compelling reading from start to finish.
If you've ever been to Prince Edward Island, one thing you'll notice is that there are a high number of Japanese persons about. While we were at the Preserve Company this year, a tour bus full of Japanese tourists arrived. One year I spent a week at a B&B in Charlottetown and I was the only guest on the premises who wasn't Japanese. The reason for this is, of course, Anne of Green Gables, who is a cultural icon in Japan. This is, apparently, because Anne and her fictional world are "kawaii" which is the Japanese "culture of cuteness" in which characters are cute, vulnerable and child-like. This is something which the Japanese prize highly in fiction- as can be seen in a lot of their anime. The last time I went to Green Gables, there was a Japanese wedding party having their pictures done on the grounds, which is not uncommon. Japanese tourism is big business on the Island. But how, you may ask, did a Canadian literary character become so well-known and popular in Japan? The answer is Hanako Muraoka.
Hanako Muraoka was born in in 1893 in a town west of Tokyo, one of eight children. Impressively, her father was determined that she get a good education and so sent her to a mission school run by Canadian Methodists. There, Hanako spent ten years studying Japanese and English, as well as having lessons in Canadian culture and Christianity. After graduating, Hanako became a teacher at another mission school and worked on translating some English short stories into Japanese. In 1919 she married Keizo Muraoka, a young Presbyterian publisher and soon after that began working on translating English novels- such as Mark Twain's works- into Japanese. In 1932, she got a job hosting a news program for children on the radio. It became so popular that she was called "Rajio no Obasan" (Auntie Radio). When Japan entered World War II, however, Hanako quit her job because she refused to refer to Canadians as enemies, nor did she want to report the increasingly horrific news of the war to children.
Loretta Leonard Shaw from New Brunswick, Canada was an honours student at university and afterward became a teacher. Feeling called to the mission field, she went to Japan in the early 1900's to teach at the mission schools. After 25 years of teaching, Shaw moved to Tokyo to work at the Christian Literature Society of Japan. This is where she met Hanako; the two started working together, editing a magazine called Shokosi (Children of Light). They became good friends and when Shaw left Japan in 1936 she gave Hanako a copy of Anne Of Green Gables as a gift, suggesting that it would be a good book for her to translate. With the onset of W.W. II. this translation became extremely difficult and dangerous because Japan banned the use of English and all Western literature. Hanako worked on the translation in secret, taking it with her to bomb shelters during air raids to keep it safe, knowing she would be arrested if she was caught with the book. It wasn't until 1952 that Anne Of Green Gables, or Akage-no-An was published in Japan and the rest, as they say, is history- thanks to a Canadian missionary and the bravery and determination of Hanako Muraoka.
As the crippled flight radios news of their distress, forces on the ground in San Francisco mobilize, trying to prepare for all possible scenarios. They have rescue crews on standby at the airport, and scramble a B-17 plane to escort the 420 in case they are able to actually make it to the coast. They also direct coast guard ships to converge along the route so that they can pick up any survivors in the very likely eventuality that the plane is forced to ditch in the ocean. On board the 420, Sullivan knows that the passengers will need some sort of explanation of what's going on and sends Dan Roman back to tell them what happened and endeavor to keep them calm. Dan finds that Spalding has done a good job of getting people back to their seats and comparatively calm. He explains their predicament honestly, but deliberately underplays the difficulty and danger of ditching in the ocean, especially when it's as stormy and rough as it presently is. Despite his reassuring words, many of the passengers are teetering on the edge of panic until a calming influence comes from an unlikely source. Seizing on the relative calm, Dan enlists a number of them to help throw luggage, and any furniture, etc. not fastened down out a hatch, as a lighter weight- no matter how slight- will conserve fuel.
Back in the cockpit, things are understandably tense. Lenny is feverishly plotting their course, figuring out how much fuel they'll need to reach the coast at their present speed. It doesn't look good. Meanwhile, though outwardly calm, Sullivan can feel his fear and self-doubt rising, making it difficult to concentrate on the decision he has to make: whether to ditch or attempt to reach land. Fortunately, they have a couple of hours before they can do either, so he has time to consider all options. Meanwhile back in the cabin the passengers are dealing with the dreadful wait in differing ways which throw their characters in stark relief. In a darkly amusing twist Agnew, now seated beside a wary and alert Locota, is complaining querulously about the effect the stress is having on his health and threatening to sue the airline. In several other cases however, the passengers, faced with the distinct possibility of imminent death, are reexamining their lives and problems and seeing them from a completely different perspective.
Soon after Dan returns to the cockpit, Lenny discovers to his horror that he's made a mistake in his calculations and the time that they can remain in the air is less than they thought. This news causes Sullivan to make his decision: they will ditch in the ocean. He sends Hobie Wheeler back to help Spalding hand out life jackets to the passengers and give them instruction in what to do when they hit the water. He refrains from telling them that it's going to be like flying into a brick wall. Dan Roman is watching Sullivan and recognizes his paralyzing fear for what it is; he has been there himself. He knows that Sullivan isn't thinking clearly about the situation. They've been picking up speed due to a favorable tail wind and the lighter weight has helped. It's still a gamble as to whether or not they can make it safely to San Francisco, but in his opinion it's still a better option than trying to ditch. Even if Sullivan manages to bring the plane down without it breaking up and killing everyone, the chances of getting survivors out and into the lifeboat in the extremely rough sea are virtually nonexistent. He determinedly says as much to Sullivan who angrily refuses to reconsider. Panicking, he starts to prepare to ditch immediately instead of waiting until they're closer to shore. Dan backhands Sullivan, calling him a coward and takes over the controls, putting them back on course for the coast. Sullivan sits quietly in his chair, shocked into thinking clearly, which is what Dan had intended. Reevaluating their position, he decides that Roman is right about attempting to make it to San Francisco being the better choice. He finds that, having been called on his secret fear, it has decreased to a manageable level and he is able to take over the controls again. He instructs the crew to notify the ground crew that they're coming in. In an extremely tense scene, Sullivan manages to land the plane safely and the passengers disembark shaken and, in many cases, changed. Sullivan and Roman walk over to where the plane is being examined by the ground crew and say nothing when they find that there's almost too little fuel left to measure. Sullivan says he's going home to his wife, and Dan walks off into the night alone, whistling softly.
The High And The Mighty is a 1953 novel by Ernest K. Gann and is the story of an airplane in crisis over the Pacific Ocean. Flight 420 takes off from Honolulu carrying sixteen passengers and five crew members. It is headed for San Francisco, California in what should be a very routine flight. The passengers are a varied lot- vacationers, a couple returning from their honeymoon, a South Korean woman coming to the States to attend university, and an elderly, terminally ill gentleman to name a few. There's also a last minute addition to the passenger list- a man who makes Spalding (the stewardess) nervous because he seems hostile and twitchy. In addition to Spalding the crew consists of navigator Lenny Wilby, young second officer Hobie Wheeler, first officer Dan Roman, and Captain Sullivan. Sullivan is a competent and skilled pilot but is currently- and secretly- experiencing self-doubt in his abilities and career choice despite (or maybe because of) his many hours of flying. He also resents having Dan Roman as his first officer. Dan is quite a bit older than Sullivan and used to be a captain himself until a plane he was piloting crashed- through no fault of his own- killing quite a few people including his wife and son. Roman survived, but was left with a bad limp and an inability to return to the captain's chair, despite having forgotten more about flying than most pilots ever know. Having a first officer who is his senior in both years and experience makes Sullivan uncomfortable, especially given his present lack of self confidence.
As the flight takes off and Spalding begins getting the passengers drinks, we learn more about them; one couple is on the verge of divorce, another- a Broadway producer- is afraid of flying. One lady is going to meet the man she has been corresponding with for the first time... each character is fleshed out a bit so that we feel like we know them a little. Jose Locota is a fisherman who is flying for the first time, and he is keeping a suspicious eye on the twitchy passenger, Humphrey Agnew. His behaviour reminds Locota of a man he once saw knife another on a fishing boat. His reading of Agnew is pretty accurate; he took this flight because his wife's former boss- Ken Childs- is on it and Agnew is convinced that they're having an affair. Eaten up with jealous rage, he has a gun hidden away and intends to confront and kill Childs. Meanwhile in the cockpit, the flight is proceeding as normal although Dan Roman has a momentary conviction that something is a bit off, though it's just a feeling because all of the instruments are reading exactly what they should. Sullivan, taking a break and resting on his cot experiences the feeling that the propellers are not perfectly in alignment. He returns to the cockpit to check, but just as Dan found, all of the readings are perfect. In the galley, a sudden strange vibration causes Spalding to spill hot coffee and burn her hand. She goes forward to the cockpit to report it, but the flight crew felt it as well and are checking over everything to try to find out what caused it. They can't find anything wrong. As they are running through the checklist of possible problems, Lenny reports that they've just passed the point of no return: it's now further to go back to Honolulu than to go on to San Francisco.
Back among the passengers, Agnew has finally decided to confront Childs and does so, accusing him of sleeping with his wife. Childs denies it but Agnew doesn't believe him and starts to pull his gun. Locota, who has been carefully watching him, sees the movement and wrestles the gun away as other passengers- and Spalding- rush to help subdue Agnew. As this incident is unfolding, everyone standing up milling around is suddenly thrown off balance as the plane suddenly lurches violently. A passenger screams out that the wing is on fire; it's actually one of the engines... a propeller has come off, dragging the engine, which catches fire, off its moorings. The crew quickly extinguishes the fire, but the prop is gone and so is the engine which, in addition to not working, is hanging off the wing and causing drag. Despite this, doing rapid calculations, Lenny and Sullivan figure that they have enough fuel to make it to the coast. Dan, however, is watching the fuel gauge and notices that it seems to be a lot lower than it should be. He goes to a window to examine the damaged wing and his suspicions are confirmed. When the propeller came off, it punctured one of the fuel tanks, which is leaking badly. Barring a miracle, they're not going to have enough fuel to make it to San Francisco.
I've made some quick and easy maple leaf place mats for Canada Day by blanket stitching around some felt. They also cost next to nothing, which is a consideration if you're cheap... ahem... frugal like I am. After all, why spend good money on party decorations which could otherwise be spent on books?
Speaking of books, I'm currently re-reading Canadian author Max Braithwaite's 1969 book Never Sleep Three In A Bed. Braithwaite is best known for his earlier work Why Shoot The Teacher? which is an account of his experiences as a young teacher in a one room school in Saskatchewan. Never Sleep Three In A Bed is the first in an autobiographical trilogy; the other two books are The Night We Stole The Mountie's Car and All The Way Home. Braithwaite won the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for The Night We Stole The Mountie's Car. Never Sleep Three In A Bed is Braithwaite's account of incidents from his childhood, growing up in the Canadian prairies in the years leading up to the Great Depression. One of eight children, the name of the book comes from Braithwaite's description of having to share a bed with two of his brothers.
The Canadian TV series Wind At My Back which ran from 1996 to 2001 was inspired by Braithwaite's works, but actually has little in common with the books other than the era it's set in, and a few of the character names.
I recently read Rocket Boys, which is the first of four memoirs written by NASA engineer Homer Hickam, Jr. Published in 1998, it details his high school years in a coal town in West Virginia when he and a group of friends formed an amateur rocketry club. The book became a bestseller and in 1999 was made into a movie entitled October Sky. After its success, Hickam's memoir was republished under this title as well. Inspired by the Russian's Sputnik in 1958 and the resulting space race, Homer takes up designing and building rockets with a few like-minded friends. This is far from easy, since there are few resources for them to draw on. With little money, equipment, or information, they rely on trial and error and for a long time, it's mostly error. Their (sometimes disastrous) attempts are frequently met with mockery and/or hostility from their peers and community. Yet they stubbornly keep on with their efforts, and each rocket goes a little higher, lasts a little longer. Eventually their perseverance pays off, and they end up taking their rocketry project to a national science fair.
Rocket Boys is also the story of a dying coal town. Built up around the mine- its name is Coalwood- the town at the beginning of the book is a bustling, busy place with two interests: coal and football. But the mine is no longer producing as it had in the past, and it's becoming obvious that eventually, in the not-too-distant future, it's going to go under. And when the mine fails, the town will die. As Homer's teen years pass by, the mine undertakes a number of cost-saving initiatives including lay-offs and cut hours, but this is merely delaying the inevitable. Some of the townspeople realize this, while others are living in denial. Most of the high school students are forced to face the reality of the situation as it becomes clear that the business which has employed generations of their families is not going to provide them with jobs. For most of the miners' kids, the only way out is getting a scholarship, either for sports or academics. Of course, for many this isn't possible; Homer relates an incident where two of his classmates ask him if, after he's made it into NASA, he'll try to find them employment. Despite the increasingly bleak outlook- or perhaps because of it- the town gradually gets behind their once despised "Rocket Boys". People begin gathering to watch their launches, teachers find them books on rocketry, miners who put in long shifts at the mine spend hours of their own time building pieces the boys need for their rockets, and their triumphs are now celebrated as much as their failures used to be mocked. Perhaps the people of the town, stuck in their rather grim reality, see in those rockets rising to heights beyond their view hope for a better and brighter future. Or maybe, as the town fails, it becomes more and more important for everyone that they have this one success.
In Rocket Boys, Homer also provides a look at life with his disfunctional family. Homer- called Sonny by his family because he's named after his father- seems to have nothing in common with the man except his name. His father is the mine foreman and coaches the local football team; he has a hard time relating to his younger son who is studious, unathletic, and plays in the school band. He is closer with Sonny's older brother Jim, who is a star football player and popular jock. Homer's mother on the other hand encourages his rocketry endeavors or, at least, doesn't actively discourage them, merely telling him "Don't blow yourself up." Perhaps partially because of these parental attitudes, the two brothers don't get along and actively resent each other. The relationship between their parents is also strained. Homer Sr. is completely devoted to the mine: always there and, when he's not, always on call should he be needed. He is in the early stages of lung disease from working in the mine though he denies it and refuses to step down or even cut back his working hours. His wife, Elsie, hates the mine and refuses to accept that her husband couldn't find another job. She constantly threatens to leave and go live elsewhere away from coal country. Part of the reason she encourages Sonny is that she is determined that he will never go down into the mine.
It's odd, but in the first part of Rocket Boys, Elsie seemed like the more sympathetic of the two parents, but as time and the book went on, I started to actively dislike her and gain more respect for Homer, Sr. I can certainly understand Elsie not being happy about the mine and its effect on her husband's health and not wanting her sons to follow in his footsteps. But she married a miner and, being from a mining family herself, knew what that entailed, for better or worse. Yet she never seems to make an effort to make the best of it. Instead, her actions always seem selfish and self-serving... even her encouragement of Sonny sometimes feels like just one more way to get back at her husband. At one point, angered by Homer Sr.'s continued refusal to give up mining, Elsie withdraws from the family for months, staying in her room- which she doesn't share with her husband- and leaving her sons to fend for themselves, get themselves off to school, get their own meals, etc. It also turns out that for years, Elsie has been secretly taking some of the money Homer gives her to run the house and investing it, until she has quite the nest egg. Is she saving this money to help her sons get an education? No- without telling anyone, she's used it to buy a cottage in another State. When she eventually tells Homer about it, she informs him that she intends to move there. He's welcome to come with her, she says, but she's moving there regardless of what he does. Eventually, after the boys have gone off to university she does so, leaving her husband behind; he joins her there when he gets too sick to work any longer.
Homer Sr.'s inability to connect with his younger son is sad and frequently frustrating. Yet as time goes on it becomes clear that he is supporting Sonny's efforts in his own, undemonstrative way. He frequently- if grudgingly- gets Sonny the things he needs for rocket building, or turns a blind eye when some of his men pilfer company supplies for parts for the rockets. Sonny has a teenage boy's need to make his father proud but for most of the book it's obvious that he believes himself to be a disappointment to him. It's therefore a very important event when Homer Sr. turns up to watch their final rocket launch. The boys talk him into launching the rocket himself and, as it lifts off, we see for almost the first time an understanding between father and son. As Homer Sr. watches with amazement and delight, the rocket gains speed and altitude, disappearing from view and he and Sonny are, temporarily at least, united in their wonder and appreciation for what the Rocket Boys have achieved. I really enjoyed Homer Hickam Jr.'s memoir; he's a talented writer and the book is much more than just an account of rocket building in the early days of space exploration. It also provides a picture of growing up in a small coal town which is slowly declining, and shows that relationships, familial or otherwise, can be just as complicated and fraught with difficulty as rocket science.