Polly Horvath’s The Corps of the Bare-Boned Plane

Posted: August 2, 2008 in alternating narratives, children's and young adult literature, Polly Horvath, three or four narratives

Horvath, Polly.  The Corps of the Bare-Boned Plane.  Toronto: Groundwood/Anansi, 2007.

Two cousins who don’t know each other end up living on an island in BC in the house of an eccentric uncle they don’t know, after all four of their parents die in a train wreck in Zimbabwe.  The uncle is an absolute isolate, and the girls move into his life without much connecting with him or with each other.  They hire a cook, an old Jewish woman with a thick Yiddish accent who has survived the holocaust and then had and lost all the members of her family–so all these characters has lost loved ones and are in pain and alone.  It’s all set up to move heart-warmingly towards connection, as one would surely expect in a book of this sort–and as seems to happen, in the last quarter or so of the novel, as the otherwise self-involved uncle weirdly gets into the Christmas spirit and orders all the ingredients of a pseudo-traditional Dickensian Christmas online, and plans are made for what ought to be the traditional communal banquet.

But in fact, there never really is all that much connection.  No one joins into the spirit of Christmas in any genuine way, and all remain more or less separate.  Just as, similarly, the girls sort of leave their isolation to get together on a project (finding the parts of airplanes they will then join together to make one plane and fly off the island), but then fall seriously ill, in turns, in ways that isolate them from each other–and then one becomes more or less addicted to a cough syrup mixed up by the Jewish woman’s friend (as does the Jewish woman also).  So these characters all pull back into their isolation from each other.

By this time they’ve also hired a butler, who looks after them all but who remains a mysterious stranger (he later turns out to be a plant, and is actually a priest, a friend of a friend of the Jewish woman, sent to look out for her).   This butler-priest, who is the character who readers are told is most concerned about and connected to the four others, is the only central character in the book who doesn’t ever get to tell his own story–as the other four do.  He has no narrating passages.  That’s mainly, I’m assuming, because the author doesn’t want to give away the secret of his being a priest, and thus gets to imply he’s something scary or dangerous a lot; but it also has the effect of isolating him, too.

The Jewish lady gets sick and cough-syruped-up and withdraws also–and in the end, never does become the warm loving mother figure who draws them all together, as she seems at first to threaten to be (she has a sort of clichéd Molly Goldberg[?] Yiddishe Mama quality).  She is like a stereotype-in-waiting wo never gets to live out the pattern of the stereotype.

There is, I can’t deny, some minimal sense of bonding among the members of the family, the two girls and their wacko uncle–but it is really ever so minimal.  They seem almost just to agree to their mutual absolute need of space, distance, disconnection.  The uncle secretly has removed all the bolts from the plane one of the girls does put together and try to fly, which means it can’t get off the ground and she can’t remove herself from him and the others,  But that’s about it–his only signal that he does care for her, or maybe, at least, feel responsibility for her.

Then it turns out that there’s a secret family story in the past, about the uncle and his brothers, the girls’ fathers’ father trying obsessively to train pilots to fly without instruments (in “bareboned” planes) and killing many of them, including two of his sons.  So there’s some sort of need to atone for history?  What has separated them all in the past means they need them to come back together again now?  Maybe–but then, why don’t they?

Okay, so this is all just deliberately wacky, sort of an old-fashioned Reader’s Digest Most Unforgettable Family story, except somehow darker and not so sentimentally hilarious and more threatening.   The eccentricity and weirdness seems to be meant  to be charming, but most of the time it all just seems unnecessarily and pointlessly strange–or even, as in the case of the pilot-killing father and the supremely unengaged uncle, more than a little of disturbing: I expect charm and I seem to be getting psychosis.

All of which has little to do with the question of alternating narratives, which is why I read this book.   So what about that?

It mostly alternates between the two girls, and lets readers know that they share a self-absorption in their own painful situations and see each other quite differently from the ways in which they understand themselves.   There are also a few, shorter passages telling what the uncle thinks and what the Jewish woman thinks–which then sort of disappear, as does contributions from one of the girls, for the most part.  So the closer it gets to what ought to be, in terms of conventional expectations, the moment of connection, the wonderful joining of isolates in a happy community, the more one-sided it becomes, the more just one story instead of a mingling of many.  Weirdly, difference doesn’t get erased by connection, but by even further isolation as we see mainly only what one girl experiences of the concluding series of revelations and contacts.  Indeed, this girl’s narrative finally becomes so central that it actually absorbs part of the peritext into itself–it’s this girl and not the author who provides, at the end, a vocabulary listing of all the Yiddish terms in the book, integrated into and the concluding part of her narrative.  This one voice seems somehow to devour and absorb all the others, who then get integrated, not in a mutual community, but  only as parts of her story. the isolation of egocentricity?

Indeed, the book seems to wind up very quickly and unconvincingly–avoiding the conventionally expectable heart-warming happy community scenes but offering nothing much else to replace them.  So it seems to working an isolates-apart-coming-together shtick, but there’s such resistance to the coming together that it seems to undermine its own narrative structure.  Is it a resistance to sentimentality, to the expectable, or what?   It seems to come down to a question of how people who prefer isolation can in fact find ways of connecting with each other that won’t compromise their privacy?  And how do you connect when you’ve connected (had loving relaitonships) and then lost the ones you connected to, as these characters all have?  (One of the girls was home-schooled, etc.–all led isolated lives even before the events that bring them together on the island).

A strange book that seems both to evoke conventional expectations and weirdly thwart them–but not in a way that seems all that cohesive or meaningful.  Also, I think, strangely seeming to be one recognizably conventional thing and not quite ever being that thing, not quite being what it seems.  Or maybe there’s something I’m missing?

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