Airborn by Kenneth OppelAuthor: Kenneth Oppel
Publisher: HarperCollins (2004)
Number of Pages: 355
How long it took me to read: 2 days
Where I got this book: I found it at the local library.
ISBN: 978-0060531805

Like a Moth to a Flame

While I sometimes get embarrassed by this, I really do love young adult literature. Perhaps it is nostalgia; it brings me back to the feeling of growing up, when everything seemed like an adventure, when it was okay to curl up under the covers and imagine being in a cave or spreading my toes out in the tub and pretending to be a mermaid. Even when I hit high school and I knew I had to grow up sometime, I was just a ball of raw potential discovering my dreams and destiny. So, reading the title of the book—Airborn—excited me with its promise of an adventure in the skies, forever having that feeling in my chest that I get on the first steep drop on a roller coaster…the same feeling I got as a child, not having a clue what life held for me, but knowing that it will be amazing.

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Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “…I was born in the air, and so it seemed the most natural place in the world to me. I was slim as a sapling and light on my feet. The crew all joked I had seagull bones, hollow in the center to allow for easy flight.” (pp.12-3)

4. “Her legs were all wrong for walking, even though she’d strengthened them through her life in the forest. I hated seeing her walk. She slouched, she slunk, as if revolted by the feel of the earth beneath her feet. I wished I could help her. I knew what it was like to have your wings clipped.” (p.241)

3. “ ‘Kate, you are too bold,’ my mother always says. She hates being embarrassed. She’d rather have the Black Death than be embarrassed. Though I suppose having the Black Death would be rather embarrassing in high society. The coughing and drooling and soon.” (p.175)

2. “ ‘I want to help you,’ I said miserably. ‘I want to get the bones, I do. But the captain wants me with the ship.’ It wasn’t just disobeying orders; I couldn’t help feeling that if I left the Aurora, some disaster would befall the ship. It would be tempting fate. ‘Don’t ask me to choose, please. It’s not fair. You or the captain. You or the ship.’ ” (p.162)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “ ‘When my dad died, I was afraid I’d never ever be happy again. But I was. Once I started working on the Aurora, I loved it. It’s the world I was born into. It’s all my father’s stories. I dream about him up there, and I never do on land. It feels like home aloft. But on the ground, it all catches up with me. So I’ve got to keep flying, do you see?’ ” (p.189)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“The book takes place on an airship in Victorian times, which I think may classify this book as steampunk. The descriptions of the airship, the Aurora, and smaller hot air balloon make them their own characters, alive (or dead), with purpose and animation. The first person narrative allows me to be a voyeur on this voyage, and Matt Cruse’s status as cabin boy on the airship adds to the feeling of being not entirely noticed, like I shouldn’t be there.”

“Our fifteen-year-old protagonist is often face-to-face with a pretty girl, Kate de Vries, but he’s more interested in his work aboard ship. I appreciate this change of pace—a love of the sky over a love of the girl. Not all romances are boy-meets-girl love stories, you know?”

“Matt is acutely aware of his class status and feels much tension between himself and Kate, as well as Bruce Lombardi, a new crewmate who happens to be heir to that particular airline. While Kate doesn’t typically make mention of the difference, her chaperone takes full advantage of her status, and Kate occasionally plays the class card to get what she wants. I hadn’t expected this extra layer and what it does to Matt is very interesting; he thinks less of the rich because they’re rich, and less of himself because he’s poor, while at the same time deciding himself to be a better person for not demanding fresh croissants for breakfast the way the rich passengers on board do. It’s a peculiar inner conflict that struck a chord with me. I remember experiencing similar feelings at different points in my life—a sort of jealousy masked by either feigned indifference or false shows of moral superiority.”

“So often, Matt worries over “his” ship, the Aurora. It’s his last tie to his dead father, and his home, and somehow, something more than that. You almost get the feeling that if a romance ever blossomed between him and Kate, he would give it up in favor of his ship. Nothing, not even his remaining family, could take the place of it. When something is amiss on the ship, his heart aches. When pirates board, his concern is for the Aurora before the passengers, the crew, or even himself, and when it crashes, he seems to come close to depression. She is his first, maybe only, love.

“His loyalty to the ship is astounding. When Kate asks him to keep a secret, he hesitates, first out of a touching loyalty to his captain, but more importantly because of the feeling of being made to choose between Kate and his ship. That relationship outweighs adolescent longings, which is manly and gentlemanly. I think it touches on a type of relationship that is outside of my world. For example, I remember when I got my first car; my older sister told me I would have a love affair with it. But I never knew a car or ship or any inanimate object as well as I knew myself. Maybe the closest I’ve come was loving my first married home, but even when we moved, that idea of home remained in my husband, my son, and my dog. I know them inside out, not a house. Maybe that is the same feeling then, that feeling of home. Matt’s heart and home were with his father, who died while working on the Aurora, making that the last bond to him. So the Aurora is more than a ship; it has become his home by becoming something of an avatar for his father. And if home is an extension of self, the way my son is of me, then it is impossible to betray.”

“I admit that when Kate first made her appearance, I was worried the story would turn from airborne adventure into a forbidden romance between teens, which is a little over-played. Instead, she brings her own agenda and sense of adventure with her dreams of a mysterious winged creature written about in her grandfather’s journal. Her drive comes from a fierce dedication to her grandfather’s memory, and she will not have people remember him as a nutcase, but as a renowned scientist and explorer. She is also fueled by a personal desire to be taken seriously, looked at as a Woman of Science rather than a Meaningless Woman of Means. I like this about her.”

“Matt’s description of the winged creatures is so telling. The phrase ‘lighter than air’ used to describe both himself and the bones repeats itself, touching upon the fact of being born in the air, feeling more comfortable in the sky than on the ground… I wonder how much of it has to do with his father’s death. Definitely in the scene with the pirate and his son, Matt misses his father and struggles with seeing such a despicable man hold an innocent young boy. It’s impossible to distance himself from his grief when he’s landlocked, wings clipped, and staring at a familiar childhood scene. In this way, he is very much like the handicapped creature in the woods, who was made to fly and who is trapped on an island, struggling to make its way in an uncomfortable world.”

“Matt’s reluctance to kill or even ‘whack’ the pirates (Kate’s suggestion) strikes me. He makes mention of it several times and does not like even the idea of having to tie them up. His insistence on kindness (particularly when he lies so often through the book) is curious. It makes me wonder what the author’s personal feelings are. Is he projecting his own feelings against guns and violence, even when they are necessary for survival? Or is it that, since this is labeled as young adult literature, he is worried that writing a fifteen-year-old, gun-wielding protagonist may reflect poorly on him or perhaps end in teen violence? Or is Matt Cruse simply just that kind of guy?”


  1. Stan Mulford says:

    This looks very interesting. It might be something that I would buy for a Christmas present to a grandchild, then borrow back . . . Thank you for the evocative review.

    • Alice Mayer says:

      You’re welcome, Mr. Mulford! If you do read it, you should know that not long after I finished it, I did have a dream involving a face-off with a pirate. Fortunately, I was armed with a blunderbuss.

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