The Map of My Dead Pilots/Colleen Mondor: Celebration (and Reflections)

Friday, August 26, 2011

I was in Atlantic City a few years back when a friend sent a short note my way.  There was a blogger, she said, whom I had to read—a smart one, a respected one, who was out there talking about something I'd written.  When I followed the link, Chasing Ray, the brainchild of blogger Colleen Mondor, came into mini focus on my Blackberry screen. 

I already knew of Chasing Ray, of course I did; most anyone out here in the land of book blogging does.  Colleen has always called it as she's seen it.  She has waded in toward the important stuff, taken a stand, defended it.  She has fought on behalf of books for boys, on behalf of nonfiction, on behalf of libraries, on behalf of greater transparency in cover art, on behalf of books she has believed in, on behalf of memory. 

I have followed Colleen's blog for a long time now, and so I thought I knew her.  But this morning I finished reading an advanced copy of Colleen's first book, The Map of My Dead Pilots:  The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska (Lyons Press), and I find myself exhilarated by all that I didn't know, had not imagined. This is the story of the four years Colleen spent running Operations for a bush commuter in Fairbanks, Alaska.  It's about the planes that rose and fell, the pilots that went missing, the cargo no one would believe.  It's about defying the odds, the weather, the smash wall of mountains until those things rise up and speak and refuse to be defied.  It's about vanishing, about vanishing's speed.  It's about a daughter who loses her father too soon and who, in the end, writes stories down in search of some salvation.

It's a memoir, but it's a chorus.  It's a we and a them on the rhythmic order of Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, a book that brings us into itself (and keeps us there, utterly absorbed) with opening passages like this:
The things they had to know were endless.  From their first day flying for the Company, they filled their heads with facts and figures of length and distance, knowledge of rivers and mountains, the locations of a hundred landmarks, or a thousand.  They learned when it was safe to drop down through the clouds, when they might continue forward, when they must turn right or left, when they absolutely had to turn back.  They made sure sled dogs were tied on short leases because one of them would jump on another and cause a fight at the worst possible time.  They understood why they needed to strap down dead bodies extra tight after Frank Hamilton had one slip free on takeoff....

No one liked flying with bodies.
I said this was a memoir, and it is, but it's that other kind of memoir—the kind in which the author is not the heroine, but the webber, the weaver, the voice for those who are no longer here to tell their own stories.  That is not to suggest that there's any distance here, a single line that feels academic (though it has all been magnificently researched) or at emotive remove.  Colleen's passion for those days and those people, her intimate knowing, is galvanizing.  She's tough, and she's been toughened; she rarely puts her own self center stage. But when she appears, when she tells us something personal, the stories stick and matter.

So that this book has great affecting power and it also, I kept thinking, has all the stuff that would make for one heck of a great television series.  Why hasn't anyone thought of this before—to set a series down in a place like Alaska, to cast a bunch of crazy pilots, to write scripts around the cargo that they fly?  This has HBO all over it.  This has wings.  To anyone on the hunt for good script material, for award-winning scenes, I give you this example of many from Colleen Mondor's truly compelling debut, The Map of My Dead Pilots: 
And that's it.  That's what a real mercy flight is like up here. You have two nuns who won't give up their seats for a girl who ODs to go to the state fair for free and a mother who screams all the way that her baby is dying and then has a mini-vacation with her on the Tilt-a-Whirl as a reward for getting scared half to death.


Jeannine Atkins said...

So much loveliness. I look forward to reading this book.

Sarah Stevenson said...

This is so timely, because I did just see a TV ad for a series on Discovery called Flying Wild Alaska ( I can't wait to read Colleen's book! So happy. Thanks for the sneak preview. :)

Colleen said...

Beth - There are no words. Thank you.

Sarah - that series is an interesting take on flying up there....and that's all I'm gonna say. It's reality tv, of course! :)

Anonymous said...

It sounds fascinating!

Carol H Rasco said...

Having come to blogging in the midst of Colleen's journey to see this book published but knowing not a great deal of detail about it, I am now even more eager to have the book in my hands!

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