CM . . .
. Volume XVIII Number 41. . . .June 22, 2012
Had things turned out differently on that fateful day, 6 May 1937, perhaps the next time we travel abroad, we would be doing so inside a giant zeppelin airship instead of a jumbo jet. In Larry Verstraete’s new book, Surviving the Hindenburg, we read why that is not the case. In 1937, zeppelins were an increasingly popular and luxurious form of overseas travel. Were it not for the Hindenburg accident, money and resources would likely have continued to be invested into their development, but the disaster left people with understandable fear of that mode of transport.
Surviving the Hindenburg focuses on the experiences of the youngest crew member aboard the Hindenburg at the time of the disaster. Verstraete’s focus on the experience of a child is a good means of helping young readers to understand and relate to the drama and tragedy of that day. Werner Franz was 14 years of age and serving as a cabin boy as the airship made its three day journey from Germany to the United States. Today, at 90 years of age, he is the last remaining survivor. David Geister’s dramatic illustrations extend the Verstraete text. Both artist and writer have eyes for detail, and the addition of these details adds interest to the book. Geister’s artwork features skilful uses of perspective and viewpoint that make the paintings visually interesting. Another thing that Geister has done well is to select a cool, serene colour palette for the first several pages. Muted blues, greens, purples, whites, greys and browns dominate the first several paintings and lull the reader into a sense of tranquil serenity. On the page where Verstraete’s text first indicates the pending disaster, Geister includes a flash of orange on the cabin boy’s white coat. In the succeeding several pages, bright oranges, yellows and reds dominate as a fireball engulfs the Hindenburg. This movement from a cool to warm colour palette is a striking way of reflecting the increasing heat and intensity of the tragedy.
Given that zeppelins are so little-known today, I suspect that young readers might have been better served by the inclusion of a picture of the zeppelin earlier in the book than it does appear. The cover image shows the wreckage in flames and so does not give one any idea of what an intact flying zeppelin would look like. The first four double-page spreads show either the interior of the zeppelin or a view from a window to the ground below. As such, it is not until readers are several pages into the book that they get to view a zeppelin, and, for some readers, I suspect this is too late. Admittedly, a pencil sketch of a zeppelin is included on the inside dust jacket flap, but dust jackets are often removed.
Verstraete’s afterword is every bit as interesting as the primary text. Verstraete has always had the ability to write in an interesting and informative manner, and he does that here. His words choices are always precise and descriptive, and he possesses a strong sense of what level of detail to add to augment the story without ever leaving that story in danger of being buried in details.
Of the 97 people on board the Hindenburg at the time of the disaster, incredibly 62 somehow managed to survive. Although this book focuses upon only one of the survivors, it gives readers a good understanding of the horrors of that dramatic day. Verstraete and Geister have produced a powerful book for Sleeping Bear Press that will engage and inform readers of a wide age range.
Dr. Gregory Bryan is a professor at University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, MB, where he specializes in literature for children.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.