Fun Fact: If you want to get the attention of a class of sixth graders, tell `em about a book where a guy blew a metal rod through the top of his skull and lived. That’ll wake the little buggers up! Yes, when it comes
They grew up in the same town, were in the same third grade class, and fought practically side-by-side in the same air battles, but John Leahr and Herb Heilbrun didn’t know one another until the year 1997. At that time, Herb read in the paper that the mayor of Cincinnati would be presenting a public award to some Tuskegee pilots not too far away. So Herb crashed the reception. He wanted to thank the guys who’d covered his tail during multiple escort missions and in doing so he met John. Herb and John became fast friends, finding that they had more in common than they had ever expected. Through their eyes, Fleischman tells the story of Fifteenth Air Force and the Tuskegee airmen. He draws attention to racial lines and divides at that time then brings you face-to-face with what it meant to fly an airplane during the war. The author is adept at making this a very personal story at one moment and a look at history the next without ever straining his narrative or cutting too quickly. It makes for a startlingly good story.
For kids, the notion that your grandparents and great-grandparents were ever children can be baffling. Baffling and more than a little inconceivable. You might concede that they were capable of fighting in a massive war more than 60 years ago, but that they were ever kids running about reading comic books? Go pull the other one. So some of the best parts of this book come when you see contemporary John and Herb going to classrooms and showing classes a picture of the two of them in third grade. That was part of what I really liked about this title. You see enough of our two heroes as kids to give them some depth and history, but not so much that you get bored waiting for the action to start.
Now a book of this sort becomes a very delicate balancing act early in the game. On the one hand, Fleischman must have known how important it was to give history and context to racism in America during the Second World War. Tying this into John’s story is easy enough, considering some of the challenges he faced. But when you write a book about a black pilot and white pilot, the temptation is going to be to sort of ignore the white pilot’s tale in favor of the more exciting black pilot’s narrative. Fleischman does a good job of evening out the storyline without padding it out or filling it with unnecessary information. Even as you find yourself on Herb’s side, you can’t help but notice how unfair John’s life was in comparison. A kid’s temptation would be to blame Herb for his race’s stupidities, but Fleischman never allows that to happen. In a way, this book felt like a slightly more fleshed out version of Freedom Riders: John Lewis and Jim Zwerg on the Front Lines of the Civil Rights Movement, which paired the stories of a black and a white civil rights activist and their shared experiences in participating in the 1961 Freedom Rides. Yet I found this title superior in terms of showing the ties between the lead characters while really pulling you into their story. Both are great books, but this one felt a little slicker in the delivery.
The portions dealing with racism in America are just great. There are sentences like, "the color line in Cincinnati was invisible in law but razor sharp in daily life." And darned if the author doesn’t actually make me interested in airplane and air battles. Admittedly my own grandfather was a pilot in WWII, but I’d never thought to research what he would have gone through in the air. Fleischman includes all sorts of interesting mentions. Planes needed an overhaul if they had five hundred hours "on the clock" (i.e. in the air). You may not think much of that fact when you first hear about it, but when Herb is later given a plane with 521 hours on it, you know he’s in for trouble. And exciting? You betcha. There’s one moment where Herb tears every single muscle in his upper back just by wrestling his B-17 into formation and then he has to continue to fly it alone through a five-hour mission because his co-pilot was paralyzed by fear and almost killed the entire crew… whew!
(CONTINUED IN PART TWO)