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Oppel's Airborn

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Monday, Feb 16, 2009

Recently I finished reading Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn, the winner of Canada’s well-respected Governor General’s Award  for Children’s Literature in 2004—or “The GGs” for short. Recommended to anyone who loves a good shipwreck story and has a sense of adventure, this tale takes place in a slightly shifted reality.


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Matt Cruse was born in the air, and he only feels at home and free while sailing as cabin boy on the Aurora, a luxury airship that caters to wealthy travelers and makes long journeys from continent to continent. When Matt rescues a dying hot air balloonist, he unknowingly embarks on a new sort of journey, where his life and the Aurora herself are caught up in a fantastic adventure. Kate de Vries is a privileged teenager and the granddaughter of the hot air balloonist, accustomed to getting whatever she wants and determined to understand what her beloved grandfather went through before he died. Before she can find what she’s looking for, the Aurora is plundered by deadly air pirates, and damaged seemingly beyond repair. Matt gets caught up in Kate’s explorations of the tropical island the ship lands upon, even though his first instinct is to help with the ship’s rescue. Filled with unlikely adventure and yet realistic emotional drama, this is a wonderful story of soaring beauty and dedication to one’s beliefs, no matter the consequences.


Matt is likable and dedicated, and reading about his love for flying and crippling fear of being grounded is enthralling. Matt has his hopes for promotion and desire to work on the Aurora’s sails, maybe even captaining his own ship one day. This book has some other wonderful characters, like the charismatic yet deadly pirate leader Szpirglas and the snippy but humorous head chef Mr Vlad.


Interestingly, the male characters are more believable and fleshed out than Oppel’s female characters, possibly a reflection of the author’s gender. Kate and her chaperone, Miss Simpkins, are less fully developed than Matt, Captain Walken, and the pirate Szpirglas. The male characters seem to get more complexity, while the females stick to stereotypes in a great fashion: Kate is stubborn and willful, Miss Simpkins is hysterical and controlling. It’s worth looking beyond these simplifications for the enjoyment of a well-told story.


Matt, however, vacillates between his devotion to the Aurora, frustration at being passed over for promotion in favor of a wealthy outsider’s son, and the desire to be close to his father, who worked on the Aurora herself until his death. Matt works hard, and is rewarded for his loyalty, but things don’t always go his way, and when he comes up against difficulties, the reader discovers how resourceful and clever Matt really is. I look forward to reading the rest of the Airborn series!


I find that the dead of winter is a great time for a tropical adventure. Have you read any good escapist fiction lately?

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