When asked about his book, Airborn, Kenneth Oppel replied:
“I’ve long been fascinated by airships. To me, they seem almost miraculous. A luxurious passenger vessel bigger than the Titanic, yet lighter than air. They were the biggest objects ever to fly. What if airplanes hadn’t been invented? In the world of AIRBORN, airships rule the skies.”
Airships are one of those few things in the world that are self-explanatory: they’re ships in the air. Instead of sea, they ride on wind, air currents and, in Oppel’s world, a lighter-than-helium gas called “hydrium”. Just like ships, they have crews, with all the usual ranks, such as cabin boy, officer, captain, etc.; even the men who repair the canvas covering the airship are called “sailmakers”.
In Airborn, the airships are the best of the sea and air worlds; carrying cargo and people both, they serve any purpose that the mind can think of. Naturally, of course, the more popular use for them is cruise liner-variety passenger-ships such as the Aurora; sure, their travel-time can be seven times slower than the rate of a modern airplane, but they do it with such style and convenience that nobody would care.
I may not fly often enough to be earning Skymiles, but I’ve flown enough to know that planes are cramped, uncomfortable, and a pain in more places than one. In fact, the talk of airships actually begins to make you wonder not “what if”, but “why”. The answer is painfully simple: the USS Akron and the Hindenburg. Their tragedies forever decided the fate of airships, reducing them to what we know today as blimps and zeppelins; and revealing the note of accuracy behind Oppel’s ironic comparison of airships and the Titanic. In hat tip to this, Airborn is haunted from beginning to end by the death of a sailmaker who was blown away in a storm.
The sail maker was the father of a cabin boy named Matthew Cruse. Matt was offered the cabin boy position after his father died, and accepted it gladly because it would be on his late father’s ship, the Aurora. He would be rubbing elbows with the men who worked side-by-side with his father and under the captain his father so admired. He would be the Mr. Cruse of the Aurora.
Cruse was a hardworking and good father, but being a sailmaker he was hardly ever at home. So Matt did the natural thing for a young boy to do; he idolized him. He dreams of airships because his father works on one, and when he’s offered a position, he jumps at it, even if it’s the ship his father died on; for Matt, the idea that his father died doesn’t even compute.
Even the fact that his father is no longer living and breathing isn’t enough to convince him that his father is dead; and it’s a contradiction that Matt is willing to live with. However, to support the contradiction, he concocts an idea that even he knows is ridiculous: his father didn’t fall, he flew, and his spirit continues to fly and follow the Aurora wherever it goes.
If he’s really going to believe it, though, he’s going to have to make it seem like a reality; even if it means convincing himself that he, too, can fly. He does such a thorough job that when the captain asks him to dangle on a giant hook off the ship to rescue a failing air balloon, he does so fearlessly.
Matt doesn’t completely live in his father’s shadow, of course; he has his own ambitions. He wants to be a captain someday, but sailmaker comes first. The awaited opportunity comes a year after the air balloon incident, and disappears as quickly as it appeared. The captain is apologetic, but there’s nothing he can do. Mr. Lunardi owns the airship, and if he wants his son Bruce to be the next sailmaker on the Aurora, then that’s how it is. The captain even offers to refer Matt to other captains needing new sailmakers, but Matt refuses (somewhat selfishly, since he’s supporting his mother and two sisters).
When he rescued the air balloon the year before, there had been old man in the basket who had died shortly afterward. Fate would have it that now in his hour of ultimate self-pity, Matt runs into the man’s granddaughter, who has inherited every spark of the spunk and audacity that lead her grandfather to try and sail around the world in an air balloon. She has the journal of his travels, and is determined to discover the previously unknown winged mammal he claimed to see. They’re en route to the sighting spot, she says, but she needs a crew member to look at the charts and tell her exactly when it will be; Matt reluctantly agrees.
If ships are going to start sailing the skies, then it’s just a matter of fact that pirates are going follow them there. Wealthy cruise-liners like the Aurora would also be among their first targets. All they want is the riches that the passengers would inevitably have, but as they leave, their own ship’s propellers are caught in the canvas of the Aurora, marooning her to the island down below.
Following the trend of first-person young adult books, this is actually one the better examples out there. It helps that Matt-aside from his father’s death-starts out the story significantly more mature than the average YA hero, but writing also contains subtleties that most YA authors wouldn’t bother with, for fear that the aimed audience wouldn’t appreciate them. Things such as Matt’s use of “for” instead of “because”, or his describing what would be an everyday sight for him, like ornithopters, in passing rather than in detail, as if he assumes that the reader also lives in his world.
In fact, the parallel world that his story resides in is very much like the increasingly popular Girl Genius comics: Edwardian culture combined with close-to-modern technology.
Oppel himself doesn’t forget for a second who’s reading his book, and he occasionally milks the time period for modern laughs; there’s a scene in which Matt is scandalized by a young woman wearing a skirt that stops right below the knee. However, Oppel is smart enough to not belittle his hero’s world; there are values that, even if modern readers doesn’t share them, are taken dead serious. It’s no joking matter when Matt is firmly scolded for flirting with the air-balloonist granddaughter; the reason, which he accepts without question, is that he’s unable to marry her at the moment. It’s an interesting breath of fresh air from the usual crass atmosphere of most YA fiction.
There are occasionally bits that make you wonder where the editor was, like Matt’s penchant for repeating himself a little too often or, more glaring, his sister’s name changing back and forth from “Sylvia” to “Emilie”. The book doesn’t ask you to inspect it that closely, however, since the characters run from one unlikely situation to the next. Airborn is, in its most basic form, a “high seas” adventure story that lauds the lost dream of airships; and, left to that, it works.
Rebekah is a senior in high school who loves reading, writing, or anything that contains a story and a puzzle. She runs the review blog “And a Sweet Sound it Made”.