Thursday, October 18, 2012

1948 - The Twenty-One Balloons

I have to say that The Twenty-One Balloons, written by William Pene du Bois, although amusing at times, is unlikely to be a book that I shall re-read at a future date. I enjoy both plot driven and character driven stories. But this is a strange little piece that seems to be not much of either. It is written in an oddly stilted style, as if it had been translated like The Little Prince, or as if it were an attempt at a writing style from the late 1800's, during which time this tale takes place. It's not written badly, but it contributes to me feeling detached from the characters and the story.

Professor Sherman has just been fished out of the ocean, and the world is dying to know what his adventures have been since he set off in a little house set with hydrogen balloons with plans to take a sabbatical and stay aloft for a year. He will not say a word until he is able to share his story with the Western American Explorers Club in San Francisco. Of course this sets the country into an frenzy of curiosity, and he is delivered posthaste to the club, with all the fanfare of a hero's welcome.

Oddly, the author follows little rabbit trails among the non-essential details of the preparations for the celebration, the miniature colorful hydrogen balloons that are arranged along the boulevard, the children who snag a couple and play with them until the game goes awry, the dome of the Explorers building that floats away carried by decorative balloons, becoming a hut for a Native American Indian chief. Finally, we come to the part we've been waiting for, Professor Sherman's lecture.

He begins his story to the enthralled audience.

The balloon adventure goes wrong near the outset, and he crash lands on the island of Krakatoa. To his surprise, it is inhabited by a group of Americans who have set up a little hidden paradise there. They haven't "gone native;" to the contrary, they have transplanted their customs, dress, fashions, culinary favors, and architecture to the jungle island. And they have improved these, in a steampunkish sort of way. There is a hidden source of treasure on the island, so no one has to worry about money. There is a lot of utopia fantasy in the story of the lives of the Krakatoans, which makes up the bulk of the book. They share in common, devote a lot of their lives to pleasure, fine dining, amusements, recreation, and for some, invention.

Of course, it all ends when the volcano explodes. and if this were a plot driven book, there would be excitement, danger, close calls. If this were a character driven book, you'd see the Krakatoans realize how shallow their lives had become, being cut off from the rest of humanity; they would be come flesh and blood, not the paper dolls whose well-laid plans for escaping disaster nicely come about.

I think this book would be most enjoyable to the young readers who enjoy letting their imaginations be taken on different turns with odd, far-fetched inventions that somehow seem like they COULD work, without letting a story get in the way.

I bought this book at Goodwill for $1.49.

No comments: