CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number 20. . . .February 3, 2017
Heart Like A Wing.
Dan Paxton Dunaway.
Vancouver, BC: Ronsdale Press, 2016.
238 pp., trade pbk., e-book & pdf, $11.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-55380-476-5 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55380-477-2 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-55380-478-9 (pdf).
Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up.
Review by Joanne Peters.
They came for me when I was nine. Without warning, appearing suddenly at the orphanage as if they knew all about me. I had never seen them before. There must be some mistake, I told myself. They must be looking for another kid. They told me they were looking for a special little girl. But I was ugly. They asked me a lot of questions. Did I know where Crowsbeak was, and what did I think about going to a new school? The one thing they didn’t ask me about was my scar. Peter had told all the kids at the orphanage that it was the mark of a wizard. If they made fun of me, he said, I would turn them into toads. He was my best friend. My only friend at the Orange Order Orphanage in Indian Head. (p. 1)
The next day, [see above excerpt] Briony leaves her best friend behind, starting life over with Moll and Dagget Enger in a remote settlement on the edge of Crowsbeak Lake in northern Saskatchewan. Rather unusual for an adoptive couple, they are in their mid-sixties; Dag is a grizzled veteran of World War II flying missions, and Moll came to Canada with him as a British war bride. Briony’s life with them is quite different from life at the orphanage: she has new clothes, plenty of books , and remarkably, “no chores, no scolding, no long list of house rules. They seemed to be content just having me around the place.” (p. 7) However, her “unsightly birthmark... and a mop of rust-coloured hair” make her “an irresistible target” (p. 6) for classmates; school is bearable only because of Moll’s support and encouragement. She and Briony spend their spare time together gardening and baking. As for Dag, he seems gruff, remote, and a bit frightening.
But that changes when she begins visiting the hangar where he houses his vintage Norseman bush plane. One day, she climbs into the plane’s cockpit and is fascinated by the array of levers, dials, and all the instrumentation. Seeing her interest, Dag gets into the pilot’s seat and explains the function of all the controls, after which, Briony is “hooked – this was amazing stuff.” (p. 10) She begins to visit the hangar daily, learning simple airplane maintenance tasks, becoming Dag’s assistant mechanic. This is “real school” for her – bullying and continual rejection make life at Crowsbeak Elementary as wretched as ever. But, pulling on her mechanic’s coveralls turns her into a nearly invincible Supergirl, and that gets her through those cold winters in Crowsbeak.
By the time she’s 12, she’s ready to fly with Dag, and on that first flight, she experiences a real sense of purpose in her role as the plane’s mechanic. She knows that she will become a pilot, and Dag is obviously proud of her. She’s not just his daughter; now, she’s his co-pilot. Briony’s skills as a navigator grow with each flight; “the lakes that had all seemed so featureless now began to acquire unique identities” (p. 28). However, her confidence in the air is counterpointed by the misery of school; the transition from elementary to high school can be tough for anyone, and in Briony’s case, an old history of ill-will between Crowsbeak High’s principal and Moll continues, with her being targeted by the principal’s daughter and her friends, a gang of classic “mean girls”.
Adolescence is a time to search for, and make sense of, one’s identity, and for Briony, this is complicated, both by her curiosity about why Dag and Moll had no children of their own, and by the source of her birthmark and gruesome nightmares. Soon after Briony has her first menstrual period, and is now capable of having children of her own, Moll reveals a secret that she has kept for more than fifty years. Nineteen-years-old and pregnant, her boyfriend off fighting in the war, Moll had an abortion which rendered her infertile. Depressed and guilt-stricken, at her brother’s suggestion, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, and in time, met Dag. “Everyone was either falling in love or getting killed” (p. 31), but this is a wartime romance, one which endured even after Moll told Dag her secret. They married, moved to Canada, but Moll never really left her past behind her. It’s clear to Briony why they waited so long to adopt a child, and why, when they did, they came to the Orange Order Orphanage looking for her – a girl, like Moll’s aborted child.
However, in the autumn of what would have been Briony’s final school year, Moll’s health deteriorates, and in the winter, she succumbs to pneumonia, leaving Dag and Briony devastated by her loss. “Moll had a carefully thought-out will” (p. 84), and requested that her cremated ashes be spread from her brother’s vintage plane over Wiltshire in England. And she had left a financial legacy for Briony: ten thousand dollars, held in trust, which would assist with the costs of obtaining a commercial pilot’s license. Grief-stricken though they are, soon, Briony and Dag are back in the air, and when not flying, they discuss how they will fulfill Moll’s final wishes. Then, the summer fire season arrives, putting plans on hold, and on one of their rescue missions, the passenger is a young man in desperate need of transport to the hospital burn unit in Prince Albert, SK. It’s Peter, Briony’s old friend from the orphanage. Her hospital visits with him re-kindle memories, and “questions lying dormant... these past nine years.” (p. 111)
Briony has already learned that she is part Cree. On one of Dag’s freight runs to a northern settlement, Boniface Lake, she met an elderly woman, Nuttah, who is an old friend of her foster parents. Briony and Nuttah bond almost instantly, and on one of their visits to Boniface Lake, Dag takes Briony to see the grave of Nuttah’s son, RCMP Special Constable Roch Labelle. Not long after that visit, Dag reveals that Labelle was Briony’s father and that Nuttah is, in fact, her grandmother. Who, then, is Briony’s mother? That information would be on Briony’s birth certificate, a document she needs in order to obtain her passport for their trip to England. A search of Moll’s files reveals a folder full of documents related to Briony’s adoption, including her certificate of live birth. Shockingly, Briony weighed less than two pounds at birth. Even more shocking is her learning that she is a survivor of a late-term abortion which her mother (a British woman, like Moll) underwent in Regina’s Pasqua Hospital. Nuttah had had a vision of a child with a birthmark running the length of her face, and Briony’s deformity is one outcome of having survived the abortion; the other is the torture of her indescribable nightmares, birth memories of the worst kind.
Pretending that she is seeking an abortion, Briony goes to Pasqua Hospital to meet with a doctor to discuss the procedure and the possibility of a late-term abortion. The doctor soon realizes that Briony really isn’t pregnant, and so Briony tells the story of her mother’s choice. Her survival was something of a legend at the hospital, a medical miracle. Even more miraculous is Briony’s meeting with the nurse who was one of the attending staff when she was born and who took the two pound infant to the Neo-Natal ICU, saving her life. Briony’s pilgrimage to find out about her mother and her birth is complete. Leaving the hospital, Briony then visits the RCMP Heritage Museum, seeking an exhibit depicting the incident which took her father’s life. He died a hero. Her final visit, before leaving Regina, is with Peter. Despite her hopes of helping him hold onto life, he gives up, and several days later, he dies alone under a bridge, eleven blocks from the hospital he chose to leave.
Soon after Peter’s memorial service, Dag and Briony’s passports arrive. Each had been thinking about making the trip to England in Dag’s vintage Norseman and, after admitting that neither wants to journey to England by jet or ship, they agree to fly the old plane. During World War II, Dag flew many a mission from Goose Bay, NF, to Prestwick, Scotland. “We used the northern route during the war to fly new planes to England... A regular milk run.” (p. 155) If anyone can do it, it’s these two. Despite the dangers of flying for miles over large stretches of open ocean, they are both game for the challenge, and after weeks of planning, mapping, and mechanical preparation, the journey begins. To say that it is epic is something of an understatement, and, as Dag and Briony journey north, you feel as if you are sitting there in the back of that little old plane, experiencing every jolt, straining the eyes to find landmarks, and always hoping for decent flying weather. It’s a tough journey, even for someone young and fit, and after a while, it gets difficult for Dag. But, they fly on, despite turbulence, rough winds, and at times, near-zero visibility. Finally, a fire in the cockpit forces Briony to bring the plane in for a crash landing, 20 miles short of the airport in Stornoway, on Scotland’s Isle of Lewis. The plane is damaged, and Dag is injured, but despite everything, she has “made an old man proud.” (p. 226) The emotion of her last night with him is powerful, and anyone who has spent time with a parent in his or her last hours will connect powerfully with Briony’s experience. In the book’s final scene, Dag and Moll’s ashes are joined together, and as Rodney and Briony fly above Wiltshire county, her foster parents are poured into the air, “drawing a thin grey line beside the Tiger Moth like a long winter breath.” (p. 238).
Heart Like a Wing is definitely a novel for older young adults. Briony’s voice, as she recalls the story of her nine years with Dag and Moll, is that of a reflective adult. An adoptee’s search for his or her biological parents and the emotional trauma and profound guilt suffered by some women who have undergone an abortion are but two of the complex life issues of which Briony must make sense and with which she must come to terms if she is to have some degree of personal peace. At times, I found Moll to be just a bit too perfect to be believable, but she was never saccharine. While life does offer amazing coincidences, Briony’s meeting the nurse who assisted at her mother’s abortion pushed the limits of credibility for me. However, there is much more in this book which is authentic and real, notably the continual harassment waged by the mean girls of Crowsbeak High, and above all, the descriptions of flight in Canada’s north.
In his “Acknowledgements”, Dan Paxton Dunaway extends his thanks to a bush pilot and a commercial airline pilot for their assistance in making the flying scenes accurate. Those scenes in the air not only give one a sense of being in the plane with Briony and Dag, they also help the reader to understand the critical role that bush pilots play in providing supplies, equipment, and human resources in the more remote regions of our country. Life in the north isn’t for everyone, and one needs to be resourceful and strong in order to survive and thrive there. Briony definitely is strong and resourceful, and female readers will admire her strength and drive. As a female bush pilot, she is a trail-blazer and role model. Male readers will enjoy the aviation scenes if they can be convinced to pick up a book with a strong female protagonist. Heart Like a Wing is a choice for high school library fiction collections; yes, there’s some swearing, although it’s nothing you don’t hear in most high school hallways, and the romance in this book is pretty tame. But, it’s a book for capable readers. While it is only 238 pages long, it’s a trade paper format, and the print font is smaller than one might expect in a young adult novel. Still, it’s a good read, especially during a cold Canadian winter.
Joanne Peters, a retired teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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