Review of the Day: On the Wings of Heroes
On the Wings of Heroes by Richard Peck. Dial Books (a member of Penguin Group, Inc.). $16.99.
Yeah, well. What kind of review site would this be without a little Richard Peck once in a while anyway?
Richard Peck is such an old-fashioned guy. Go through his books and look what you find. Nasty bullies getting their due. Pranks. Upright citizens. Heroes. Work that makes a boy strong. And wise old people who dole out necessary advice and make the rest of us look weak in comparison. It takes a couple heaping helpfuls of nostalgia to write a Richard Peck book, and as far as I can figure it, nostalgia falls into two distinct categories: Good Nostalgia and Bad Nostalgia. Bad Nostalgia bores the socks off its readers. It wallows too deeply in the idea of how great things used to be and would rather eat its own shoes than allow that there might be some pretty great things going on right now. Good Nostalgia’s a different beast entirely. It conjures up the past, transplanting its readers to another time. A time where there was good and there was bad, but most of all there was just a world that wasn't too unlike our own. “On the Wings of Heroes” is rife with Good Nostalgia. It bears the flaws of its genre without apology, but is a pretty good book in the end anyway.
Everyone has to have a hero. For Davy it’s his older brother Bill. It’s World War II and Bill’s off to fight in a handsome B-17, carrying with him his small town’s good wishes. Life before and during the war couldn’t be more different. Before the war Davy spent a lot of time with his best friend Scooter, trying out their new bikes, enjoying Halloween, and playing in the warm summer nights. During is different. Now the kids are doing regular collections for the war effort. Bill's been sent off to fight and Davy's avoiding the malevolent (not to say violent) Beverly C. while dealing with family worries to boot. With a great cast of kooky characters and superb writing, a book that could have been yet another dull historical novel distinguishes itself. A great slice from the past.
A co-worker of mine is a gigantic Richard Peck fan. She’s read his books cover to cover and then back again. As such, she’s probably his biggest critic. After going through “Heroes”, she found she was not entirely impressed. Richard Peck lite, she called it. She even pointed out certain elements to me. The dirty bully girl in the book? Wasn’t she in a couple of his stories before? Ditto the ancient teacher idea, the pranks, and even the Midwestern setting. To her eyes, he’s done it all before and he’s done it better. Be that as it may, I am not a fan of her caliber. I read “A Long Way From Chicago” and “A Year Down Yonder” and enjoyed them just fine. Then I read “The Teacher’s Funeral” and “Here Lies the Librarian” and was disappointed. So for me, “On the Wings of Heroes” represents a return to form. Sure Peck is reusing some old tropes and techniques. Still, if you take the book in and of itself and don’t compare it to his past or future work, I think it stands rather nicely all on its own. It may not garner the biggest awards out there, but there’s no doubt in my mind that it’ll have its fans.
Peck’s writing makes the whole enterprise well worth a peek anyway. First of all, he's funny, which is of vast unrecognized importance. Like any kid assigned this in school, I actually wasn't too keen on reading, "On the Wings of Heroes." Historical fiction is fine and all but I shy away from it when I can. So it's nice to get sucked into novel, especially if it's against your will. The individual sentences get all evocative and suggestions are made of future events. For example, whenever Davy’s father hears of an injustice or a wrong, we hear that, “something coiled in him again.” That “something” never uncoils in this book, but I suspect that it probably happens long after this particular story is over.
Of course, Peck writes of a white white world. If you’re looking for a little diversity, he’s not your man. It doesn’t usually occur to me when I read him, but this book in particular shows just how pale as newly fallen snow Peck’s universe is. He doesn’t deal with racism or social injustice much at all. So when the DAR gets a mention, it sticks out more for me than it might if there was a single African-American character living in this Midwestern American town. Those of you who would prefer to read a book with a little more racial complexity would do well to look to another novel.
Will kids read it? Not if you don’t sell it to them. Look, if a kid is standing in front of a row of books and one book has the title, “Alcatraz and the Evil Librarians” and the other book reads, “On the Wings of Heroes” which book is the kid going to pick up first? I mean some will read this book and love it, no question. It sounds odd to say, but the book this reminded me the most of was Ray Bradbury’s, “Dandelion Wine”. Know me and know my love of “Dandelion Wine” and you’ll see how grand a compliment this really is. It doesn’t have Bradbury’s dark surreal undercurrents, of course, but there’s a lot of joy here and a lot of familiar ideas. Plus, other books crop up in the old memory as well, like the moment when the root beer brewing in the basement explodes like a fourteen gun salute. It reminded me of nothing so much as the brewing that goes on in that great 30s novel, “Cheaper by the Dozen”. Though it shouldn't be confused with an accurate representation of the past in all respects, there's a lot in Peck's novel to enjoy. It has the ability to make children nostalgic for a time they will never know. Recommended.
Notes on the Cover: Okay. Dial, I know what you were going for here and I can’t blame you. And this jacket image is entirely faithful to the book, no question. You’re going for a nice 40s look, and who can blame you? So I’m giving you a pass on this one. Personally, I think this kind of image draws a very specific kind of reader. But let’s be honest here. Peck has written a very specific kind of book, so the packaging is faithful to product. Plus, this was done by Chuck Pyle? That wouldn’t happen to be the grandson of Howard Pyle, would it? Well his bio ain’t saying but it wouldn’t be a completely peculiar assumption to make. I wouldn't have commissioned it, but I can see why you did.
First Lines: "Before the War the evenings lingered longer, and it was always summer when it wasn't Halloween, or Christmas."
Previously Reviewed By: BookMoot, the Books for Kids Blog, Emily Reads and the BCCLS Mock Awards.