On the first page of this historical fiction is an old black and white picture of a handsome young man with laughter in his eyes and a cocky grin on his face. He is standing in front of a biplane – a small plane for two, with an open cockpit. Over the picture, it reads, “In memory of my grandfather, Norbert.” The image and words left me with a feeling that I would enjoy this novel, which I did.
The characters include two friendly but highly competitive male teens living on their farms in California during the 1930s to the 1940s. Both are the sons of farmers who have been feuding for years. One of the boys is shy despite a handsome, all American face. The other boy is also handsome. His face displays his Japanese American features. This teen’s nature is much more outgoing than his friend’s, but because we are in the years prior to and during WWII, he hides his true personality, emulating humility to stay out of harm’s way. We also meet a young teenage girl, her mother, and her con artist stepfather who makes a living by selling snake oil. He usually gambles away what little money they have. But, one time he is lucky and wins two biplanes. Eventually, they all meet, and so begins the story of their traveling flying circus, known as barnstorming. The conman gathers the crowds with their act, which consists of two biplanes, two stunt pilots, and two wing walkers. They make their money by selling tickets to the crowds for biplane rides. This is all illegal, but lots of fun. In case you haven’t guessed, the boys are the wing walkers and they both fall for the girl.
The young love triangle is written sweetly. The description of farming during the depression and life during WWII is spot-on. But, what I really enjoyed is learning how the early Japanese found their way into the United States. This book didn’t concentrate on the Japanese railroad workers but rather on the Japanese farm workers. I was completely ignorant that in the 1880s Japanese immigrants first came to the Pacific Northwest to farm. They traveled throughout the States buying land. Many became very successful farmers. Sadly, these farmers lost everything when the war led to the internment of Japanese Americans. Not a proud moment in our history. I found this beautiful sad poem that I encourage you to read. “Japanese-American Farmhouse, California, 1942” by Sharon Olds: https://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/sharon-olds/japanese-american-farmhouse-california-1942/.
There is also a mystery in this story, which I didn’t think enhanced the novel at all. Rather, the extra plot detracts from it, causing the tale to be too long. In 1943, an FBI agent comes looking for the Japanese teen and his family. (Eerily similar to today’s unfair treatment of immigrants coming to the US.) While there, he witnesses a biplane crash. The passengers are burned to death and not recognizable. The pilot and the passenger are assumed to be the Japanese father and son. Now, the agent’s job is to investigate the crash. I felt as though this added plot is to ensure a bestseller. The author would have been better off deciding to write one or the other, a mystery or a historical fiction. But it wasn’t enough to stop me from enjoying the novel overall.
I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.
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