Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Book Review: "The Map of My Dead Pilots" by Colleen Mondor

I have no standing to remark on a book about flying in Alaska. I have not endured the awful cold, withstood the cutting wind, peered into the frozen fog. Like everyone else, I've seen the photos – watched the films – read the stories. But of course, there are stories and there are stories.

Early in the 1990's, with a degree in Aviation Management and a need to expand the boundaries of her life, Florida-girl Colleen Mondor went to Alaska and took a job as a Dispatcher for an air-charter company (what aviators refer to as a Part 135 operation) in Fairbanks. For seven years she scheduled aircraft, typed manifests, wrangled customers, pitched in on the ramp and soaked up the reality of Alaskan aviation. And she befriended pilots and got to know them, and watched as they departed in ragged, challenging Alaska weather. And dined and drank with them when they returned. And drank with their friends when they didn't.

She earned a graduate degree in History while she worked in Alaska, studying the origins of Aviation in the Far North. She learned about Eielson and Merrill and the Wiens and other legendary names, not just accepting the stories that sustain the legends, but delving into contemporaneous sources from the 1920's.

She's blended this historical knowledge with the perceptions derived from her personal experience, allowing it all to simmer for a decade, and has now given us something more than a mémoire. The Map of My Dead Pilots has a tremendous immediacy and the ring of truth. It's for people who have shivered in Alaskan cold to comment on the accuracy of Ms. Mondor's details, but she gets the airplane stuff spot on. This is a hard book to put down.

And, oh yes, the lady can write. Within the bounds of fair use, here's a taste:

"But then there was this.

When Henry Smoke passed away in the hospital, his family asked the Company to send Tony home with the body. They wanted a pilot who knew Henry and could call him by name. Tony had been flying in and out of the Upper Yukon for years, and Henry was the Company's agent in Stevens Village forever. The two of them went way back. When Tony landed in the Navajo, most of the folks from Stevens and the surrounding villages were on the ramp waiting for the plane. They unloaded the heavy, ornate casket, placed Henry down in the back of a waiting truck, and then drove slowly away. Tony waited until he was the only one left at the airport before he started up the engines. He said later he wanted to preserve the quiet for as long as possible – he wanted to keep the ground holy.

Tony was not a religious man, but there you go. For Henry Smoke, that was the word he thought of.

He said later he was glad he took that flight, that they asked for him. He packed Henry's flight away with the ones to keep with him, and when Tony left Alaska he had well over ten thousand hours of flight time, but Henry Smoke was the only body he knew by name."

The Map of My Dead Pilots is an elegant mémoire of the author's years spent in the service of Alaskan commercial aviation. Its stories are informed by her knowledge of the historical background. But the book is more than a compendium of interesting stories.

It becomes an exploration of the variability of memory, the plasticity over time of historical information, and the malleability of stories depending on the needs of the teller and the audience. The author's tale is one of striving for the truth and learning that truth can only be approached as an asymptotic limit.

There are stories and there are stories. Ms. Mondor tells her stories as accurately as memory and circumstance allow, and she leaves the reader (I believe) with an understanding of the truth of flying in Alaska.