"High Flight", the topic of Linda Granfield's latest book, is a poem that has inspired and brought comfort to people for nearly sixty years. It is a beautifully wrought sonnet expressing its author's, John Gillespie Magee Jr.'s, exhilaration while flying: "Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth/And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings". The plane can do "a hundred things/You have not dreamed of", and allows the pilot to fly "Where never lark, or even eagle flew". The poem ends on a faintly spiritual tone: in the "sanctity of space", the pilot "Put out [his] hand, and touched the face of God." In fourteen lines, the author captures the marvel of flying, and expresses the pilot's communion with and awe of Nature and the unknown.
Linda Granfield has fashioned another splendid book based on the background of a famous poem. Like In Flanders Fields: The Story of the Poem by John McCrae and Amazing Grace: The Story of the Hymn, High Flight: A Story of World War II is full of details that situate the poem in time and place. If the list of acknowledgments is any indication, Granfield's research is impeccable. She goes to great lengths to depict accurately the life of John Gillespie Magee Jr. and the backdrop of World War II. In thirty-two pages, that's quite a bit of ground to cover.
The one great difficulty is the tale's human subject. John Magee was merely nineteen when he penned his little "ditty", as he called the poem in a letter to his parents, and he died two months later in an accident while on a practice run. His brief life was neither ordinary nor extraordinary: it was a life very much dictated by the times. Born to missionaries in Shanghai, China, in 1922, Magee spent his first nine years in the comfort of a home with servants to cater to his needs. At ten, he was sent to boarding school in England, where he remained throughout the 1930s, and then settled with his family in the United States just as war was breaking out in Europe. Eager to get in on the fighting, he postponed his admission to Yale and, with his parents' reluctant consent, joined the Royal Canadian Air Force.
The reports of Magee's character and conduct differ from person to person. Some classmates found him snooty while his friends defended him as fun-loving. His teachers and air force instructors saw in him both intelligence and recklessness. While in training, he matured and was considered an able pilot. In his first air battle, he saw his squadron leader and others shot down-surely a sobering experience. Granfield delivers this information without prejudice.
Yet, there is not too much to write about Magee himself, a fact of which Granfield seems very much aware. She asks in her opening sentence: "How old do you have to be to leave your mark?" Granfield fills the pages with wonderful facts and trivia of the time period. In addition to providing dates and details about the war, she tells us about civilian life, rationing, and other hardships, and teases us with items like Magee's being one of the pilots flying overhead in a scene from the movie, Captains of the Clouds (no doubt to entice the curious reader to seek out the film). What is missing, however, is a technical description of the planes he flew. For the most part, Granfield deftly weaves the historical information into the biographical storyline; however, there are times when the text jumps from one topic to another. In the end, there is almost too much to write about.
Granfield's use of language is sophisticated and beautiful. She never writes down to her audience, but challenges the reader with new vocabulary and complex sentence structure, two components often avoided in contemporary books aimed at young readers. She explains historical facts clearly. And there is a drive in the narrative which moves the reader along.
Michael Martchenko lends his experienced hand to High Flight. Single- and double-page spreads add to the telling of the tale. Unfortunately, the result is uneven. Perhaps it is the delicacy of Martchenko's paintbrush, the soft, light colours in odd contrast to Granfield's sombre subject matter, that does not work. Many of the illustrations capture the wonder and splendour of the poet's sentiments, such as the opening picture that accompanies the poem: a dark, cloudy sky with a burst of sunlight from which a single airplane emerges. The most effective illustrations are the landscapes and aerial scenes, with air battles and Magee's accident depicted dramatically. The least effective are the illustrations of people, who tend to look alike. The exceptions are two pictures of John Magee: first, an Errol Flynnesque Magee strides away confidently from his plane after a successful training session, one suspects, the image conveying a sense of excitement, high energy, and expectancy; later, a contemplative Magee is dressed in battle gear with planes flying in the background, the portrait suggesting a more mature, serious, battle-weary warrior.
The book's design differs from Granfield's earlier titles. Rather than being long, it is tall. In and of itself, this change is not detrimental to the topic, but it does make the book less easily recognizable as part of the author's series of poetry-histories.
As with her previous books, Granfield delivers the goods with High Flight. The author mines little-known historical and social topics and polishes them into tiny, accessible literary gems.
Theo Heras is a Children's Librarian for the Toronto Public Library, a freelance writer, and partner in Mary Contrary Associates.