Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The Freedom of the Skies: Kenneth Oppel, Airborn (New York: Harper Collins, 2004).

is a newish book which (deservedly) won the Governor General’s Award in Canada. I’ve given details away, but it is the kind of book where you can see the plot coming a mile away, and it’s the panache with which it’s written which matters.

Matt Cruse is a cabin boy aboard a luxury zeppelin in a world in which heavier than air flight is still primitive.

Oppel’s book is a lot like a Heinlein. An awful lot like Starman Jones in fact. Not so close as to presume plagiarism or anything tacky like that, but the basic outline of the plot is very similar.

Matt want to be a sailmaker like his father, but since his father held down the job, the job has become professionalized and sailmakers must go through the new Academy. As Matt’s father is now dead, Matt can’t afford this and instead takes the offer made by the Captain of his father’s ship/zepplein to be a cabin boy, with a promise of promotion when a vacancy opens up—the new system hasn’t entirely taken hold as yet. In the event, the Captain can’t keep his promise. The owner places his son in the position instead. One nice thing is that Bruce is rather a nice chap. A bit aimless, doesn’t know what he wants to do, but otherwise decent.

Matt helps save a balloonist (although the man dies) and when his grand-daughter boards the zeppelin – in a rather spectacular scene where she and her paid companion are ferried to the zepplin in an ornithopter—Kate searches him out. Her grandfather saw something special in the skies and she wants to find out what.

We then have a comedy of social manners, an attack by air pirates, the ship is stranded on a desert island and it is Matt’s commonsense and ingenuity that finds methane for them so they can get off, and then helps them escape from the pirates. While this is happening, Kate has dragged him off to hunt for the Cloud Cats they’ve seen. They find the bones of one, and later the crippled one that her grandfather saw fall. Kate wants to go to University and this discovery could be her ticket.

The book is lively, fun, manages to be Victorian without being sexist or presenting Kate as implausibly Amazonian, and all in all is to be highly recommended. I have only one qualm: neither the sense of place or time quite comes over. On the one hand, it is nice to have a lecture about where we are, but it took me a while to figure out that homebase was Canada, and the “period” is vague too—possibly late Victorian, possibly late Edwardian. This, tho’, is also one of the interesting things about the construction of the novel: Oppel hasn’t fallen into the trap of making his alternate history parallel, year for year, the social development of our world.

I think what I really like about it however, takes us right back to my original post: this is a book about free range children. Matt is out in the world because he has to be. It's not fun, but neither is it a nightmare. By twelve he is the main bread winner for his family (he is about fifteen when the book opens). Oppel depicts a boy who is competent, professional, but still a boy (no Wesley Crushers here). Kate is the protected daughter of a wealthy family straining at the leash of decorum and the infantilsation of teens in the middle-class world of the late nineteenth century. In Kate, Oppel gives a brilliant depiction of the inbetween stage which dogged young Victorian women, prevented from going onto Higher Education but not actually offered an other options either (earlier in the century, all but the richest would have worked within family businesses). Kate negotiates her way to greater freedom with the sassiness of Violet Baudelaire..


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