The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska by Colleen Mondor. Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. An adult nonfiction title, this is part of my “Holiday Reads” series; adult books to read and enjoy over the holiday.
It’s About: The myths and realities of flying in Alaska is explored, using the time period of the 1990s when Mondor worked for “the Company,” an Alaskan commuter and charter airline. In attempting to understand those who fly in the dangerous Alaskan conditions, the risks they take, and the reasons they crash, Mondor also looks at the past and the first Alaskan flights in the 1920s. This is as much about story, and the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our lives and our choices, as it is about the high-risk stakes of flying in Alaska.
The Good: Writing the brief synopsis of this book was hard, because I kept wondering if my words (“the high-risk stakes of flying in Alaska“) added to the myths that Mondor writes against.
The Map of My Dead Pilots is not a linear autobiography of Mondor’s time in Alaska in the 1990s. It does not begin with her arrival in Alaska commenting on the cold, it does not say why she went to Alaska, it does not go day by day, month by month, year by year. It’s not that type of book. Rather than a straight line, The Map of My Dead Pilots is a series of interlocked circles, linked stories that talk about the pilots, their flights, their crashes, why they flew and why they crashed. Stories that are about real people and real things, so they overlap and run into one another, have nothing to do with each other and everything to do with each other.
The myth of Alaska looms behind the story, and it’s a big myth, so Mondor wisely only looks at the myth as it applies to one area: flying. The myth is why some went to Alaska, why they went there to fly, and why the stayed. “It was the place where pilots were needed, where they mattered.” Myths are stories, and for Mondor and her pilots, the story matters. Why did a pilot, a friend, crash? What does “pilot error” mean? “Because he was lucky, he thought he was good.” True of pilots, but also true of anyone, and also true of how we choose to interpret our lives. How are our stories told and retold? For one particular crash where a pilot crashed into the Yukon River, different pilots have different stories of why the crash occurred, and each story is based on their own flying experiences, what they would or would not have done when the moment comes when there is the realization that something is wrong.
So the stories are told, by Mondor and her pilots, living and dead, attacking some myths (when is something a “life saving” mission and when is it to meet a contract to get paid?) yet repeating others: pilots who go to Alaska and and find that their comfort zones about what is and is not safe shifting, and “before they knew it, each of them was taking off in conditions that seemed unacceptable just a few weeks before.”
The writing in The Map of My Dead Pilots is beautiful; it tells about cold beyond cold, of cargo, of mail and corpses and dogs, and even a head in a box, as well as the planes, the pilots, the flights, and the history. From page one, it brings you into the story; I thought I was there, with Mondor and her friends Sam and Bryce and the other men. By jumping right into the stories, and following the emotional story arc rather than a linear one, Mondor includes the reader. “My” dead pilots does not mean Mondor’s dead pilots; it is the reader’s dead pilots as well. We are part of the myth-making and myth-breaking. “They came [to Alaska] for a thousand different reasons, but they stayed for one: Not one of them had anywhere else to go.”
I’ll end with what may be my favorite passage, because it is about how we use story to interpret our lives, and while Mondor is writing about flying I think it’s universal: “There are two ways to tell a flying story: the truth and what everyone wants to hear. You can’t have it both ways. The best stories try to walk a fine line, keep it real while making it funnier than it was, less frightening than you remember it. . . . But I think if you tell a story enough, you can find the truth in it: you can find the way it really was and not just how you wanted it to be. The lies in a story don’t come from writing it was better. They come from knowing it wasn’t.”
Disclaimer: I’ve been on-line friends with the author, Colleen Mondor, for several years. We met in-person for the first time at KidLitCon 2011.