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the twenty-one balloons

15 january 2011

The few Newbery Medal books that have found readerships independent of their Award-winning status tend to be fantasies. The formulaic Newbery book – feisty 12-year-old girl faces tough life with her eccentric grandmother – is all well and good, but actual feisty 12-year-olds like to read about weird and wonderful situations like those in A Wrinkle in Time, The Giver, or Holes.

The Twenty-One Balloons is one of those rare fantasy Medalists that seems to have had a consistent cult following down the years – perhaps thinner today than in the past, but perceptible. Its hero William Waterman Sherman belongs to a lineage of somewhat daft older men – inventors, wanderers, humbugs – that includes the Wizard of Oz and Doctor Dolittle.

But The Twenty-One Balloons is not really much like any other book. It begins with a frame narration that coyly builds suspense about Sherman (who has been found floating in the Atlantic, clinging to the wreckage of twenty large gas balloons). Sherman insists on telling his story in San Francisco, where he'd last been seen floating away in a 21st balloon, all by himself, forty days earlier.

When Du Bois drops his fey tone and lets Sherman tell his story in the first person, The Twenty-One Balloons take off. The tale blends impossible "science" and utopian fantasy. Much of it concerns the design of balloon contraptions. It's part Popular Mechanics and part flying-machine fiction of the kind made popular by earlier-20th-century series writers for boys.

It's a tense story, and only partly because we know that the characters will be blown sky-high by the eruption of the Krakatoa volcano. The free-floating, soaring possibilities of balloon flight are set against the bizarre world that Sherman finds on the island of Krakatoa. Fed by fabulous diamond mines, the twenty families of Krakatoa live one of the most rigidly regimented existences in fantasy fiction. Sherman longs to fly, but the higher and farther he tries to fly, the more leadenly he plummets into a hyperorganized Eden.

Is Eden Hell? The perfect society of Krakatoa (a foodie's fantasy of twenty four-star ethnic restaurants) lies atop a seething cauldron of lava. And once you have found your way there, as Peter Pan would say, you can never, never go home.

As I said, The Twenty-One Balloons can be fey, if not at times downright twee. But it has the severe logic of an anxiety dream. Du Bois wrestled that dream into and out of control, and his travails account for the odd, persistent appeal of the novel.

Du Bois, William Pène. The Twenty-One Balloons. 1947. New York: Scholastic, 1995.