CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 3 . . . .September 28, 2007
The Corps of the Bare-Boned Plane.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood/House of Anansi, 2007.
221 pp., pbk., $12.95.
Grades 9-12 / Ages 14-17.
Review by Todd Kyle.
*** ½ /4
Reviewed from Advance Reader Copy.
Somehow, as much as I had been sure about my mother, my mother who was so loving, who surely must be in touch with what was, so clear-sighted, so good was she, despite all that, she had gotten it all wrong. She hadn't known any more than anyone else. Because I found it hard to believe that this was possible, I harbored a half hope that it had been a mistake, they hadn't died, it must be that my mother and father had somehow survived without anyone knowing, that they weren't buried in foreign soil but were perhaps making their way through the Zimbabwe countryside to me and anytime now I would see them again.
"Jocelyn, suppose our parents aren't dead?" I asked suddenly and, as soon as I said it, was sorry.
"They're dead," said Jocelyn flatly and got up and left the fire.
Cousins Meline and Jocelyn, 15 and 16 years old, find themselves orphaned when their parents are all killed in a train crash in Africa. They are taken in by their estranged rich uncle Marten who lives alone in a mansion on a private BC coast island. Marten hires a housekeeper, the widow Mrs. Mendelbaum, and a butler, Humdinger, to help take care of his enlarged household. Unable to face her grief, Meline enlists Jocelyn to help her build an airplane from the wrecks that litter the island, the former home of the air force Corps of the title, whose rogue leader forced pilots to fly planes stripped of all instruments until the deaths of many of them forced the government to shut it down. As Jocelyn and Mrs. Mendelbaum attempt to escape their sorrow and their lingering flu by taking a narcotic cough syrup, Meline's first plane flight is sabotaged by Marten, who finally tells the truth about the Corps' connection to the girls' dead fathers. The girls finally learn to talk about their grief, and the truth that Humdinger is actually a priest sent to check in on Mrs. Mendelbaum is revealed.
Like Horvath's previous novels, this one is full of incongruous, baffling, and sometimes infuriating characters whose every obsession and nervous tic is played out in full through thought and action and detail. Told in four voices, the characters of all come through strongly, yet with little fanfare and almost no drama. Their respective narration is alternately thoughtful, sad, pathetic, and often hilariously funny, Especially entertaining are the few chapters narrated by Mrs. Mendelbaum, full of old-world fatalism and sarcastic Yiddish expressions, thankfully explained in the glossary that is actually included in Meline's dénouement narrative.
Horvath has the uncanny ability to use ridiculous and sometimes anachronistic characters to soberly illuminate timeless truths - in this case, the lengths to which people will go to avoid facing their own feelings. The plot, what little there is, takes a very long time to unfold and is constantly derailed (pardon the pun) by obsessive passages, like Jocelyn's tirade against all things Canadian (inherited from her British mother), and by esoteric detail, like Mrs. Mendelbaum's story of escaping the Holocaust. But what makes this story worth reading are the voices, especially that of Meline, and her belated finding of the connection to her cousin that she has spent all her time avoiding.
This is a very sophisticated novel, so much so that it often feels like one written for adults, especially in the chapters narrated by what are very adult characters! It is one that may seem to hold scant appeal to the average 15-year-old, and yet it does explore the emotional estrangement of the teen years, and it does have its entertaining side. And if there are very few teen girls - and even fewer teen boys - that will by choice ever finish this rather overlong novel, those that do will be huge fans.
Todd Kyle, a former President of the Canadian Association of Children's Librarians, is currently a library branch manager in Mississauga, ON.
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