Flight of Fancy
(A Book Review of William Pène du Bois’s The Twenty-One Balloons)
After busting a literary heavy I noticed that from time to time there’s this feeling, an emerging need to clear the palate, to freshen up and clean the slate for another bout of serious reading. In occasions like this I always dig the rich fields of Children’s Literature on the look out for some fun and light book where I don’t have to think much and just go along to the pull of the story wherever it will take me.
Good thing I borrowed William Pène du Bois The Twenty-One Balloons from a friend, and judging from its whimsical opening line, it absolutely fits what I want to read at the moment:
“There are two kinds of travel. The usual way is to take the fastest imaginable conveyance along the shortest road. The other way is not to care particularly where you are going or how long it will take you, or whether you will get there or not. These two methods of travel are perhaps easiest to be seen by watching hunting hounds. One hound will follow his nose directly to his prey. Another will follow his nose in a roundabout way to molehills, empty rabbit holes, garbage cans, and trees; and perhaps not pay any attention to his prey even when he happens upon it. This second way of getting around has always been pointed out as the nicest for, as you can see in the case of the slower hunting hound, you are able to see more of what is going on in the world and also how nature is getting along.”
William Waterman Sherman, the protagonist of the 1948 Newbery Medal-winning book, has been teaching arithmetic for boys for forty years in San Fransisco: “Forty years of spitballs. Forty years of glue on my seat.” So he retires at the age of 66 and decides to travel across the Pacific Ocean, be all alone for a year without any possible human contact, and fulfill his wistful longing by building an elaborate hot-air balloon built with all the accouterments he’ll ever need. But as soon he discovers, being airborne produces other problems besides spitballs.
After some months he was fished out of the ocean on what appears to be the remains of a platform attached to twenty balloons. Just what happened to Professor Sherman on those intervening days and how did he get marooned on the wrong side of the Ocean with too many balloons? It’s an extravagant story that involves a seemingly deserted remote island and an erratic volcano, an amusing form of government, its interesting people with their otherworldly yet functional contraptions, and riches beyond man’s dream wrapped up with elements of science-fiction, inventions, fantasy, survival and social commentary all rolled together in a book that moves from one astonishing plot to another that only Professor William Waterman Sherman can tell.
I thought I would be served up with another variation of a Jules Verne inspired tale ala Around the World in Eighty Days, what with a protagonist whose goal is to travel the world by a balloon, yet his journey is not to discover exotic lands but just a simple-minded desire to get away from the humdrum of living. However, as I was wrong in my initial presumption, so is Professor Sherman for the winds of fate do take him to strange shores, on the mysterious island of Krakatoa peopled by seemingly ordinary people yet with a society unlike our own, closely guarding a secret: the land surrounding the volcano of Krakatoa is teeming with diamonds!
As Profosser Sherman easily adapts on the way of life of the island’s settlers, along with being its permanent guest and his vow of silence concerning their limitless wealth, so are the readers get to see the life on Krakatoa with their Gourmet Government and their various inventions as silly it may sound it makes Krakatoans live a life of ease and comfort. As Du Bois pokes fun and amuses his young readers with the islanders’ unusual way of life, he likewise presents an ideal society, a Utopia where the residents work together and serve one another in an attempt to make life on the island better and along with it manage to snatch some thematic glimpses on the subject of human greed in a community where money, in this case the precious gems, is basically rendered worthless — yes, they have loads of diamonds but on the island what can you possibly buy with it when almost everybody already has it?
Ultimately, in the end it seems to me that Du Bois’s belief of a good, if not perfect, life shares some similarities with Professor Sherman’s: something in between perfection can only exist in constant face of danger (characterized by the risky way of life on the foot of the constantly shaky volcanic grounds of Krakatoa), and the foolishness that exists in the safety of every day life — a life apart that, like a balloon in the air, goes wherever which way the wind takes you.
“It goes to show how wonderful ballooning can be. You can never tell where the wind will blow you, what fantastic good fortune they can lead you to. Long live balloons!”
—Professor Wiliam Waterman Sherman