By the 1940s, exotic modes of travel had largely lost their romance. Instead of trains and cars, men looked ahead to the age of atomic relocation; instead of balloons, scientists designed rockets. That didn't mean that balloons were no longer romantic in their own right, just that fewer people were interested in them, drawn to the more outlandish means of transport on the horizon.
Not so for William Pène du Bois. Though he makes reference to futuristic inventions designed to improve travel speed in the Introduction to The Twenty-One Balloons, his tale of the haphazard journey of Professor William Waterman Sherman is one of 19th-century adventure, not Nuclear Age rapidity. In a plot that could have been taken from Jules Verne, du Bois has his elderly hero sailing around the world from San Francisco in a balloon and landing on the now-extinct island of Krakatoa.
Set in the last quarter of the 19th century,The Twenty-One Balloons begins with Prof. Sherman rescued in the Atlantic Ocean. He's grateful to his rescuers, but won't tell them how or why he got to the middle of the ocean. He will only tell the full tale to the Western American Explorers' Club who meets in San Francisco; he won't even tell the President of the United States of America. Eventually Sherman gets to the Club, and there he narrates a very strange tale about billionaires and exploding islands.
All Sherman wanted was to retire from his post as teacher of mathematics and sail around the world in a hot air balloon for a year. His dreams are cut short after a rapid circumnavigation of the globe lands him on the island of Krakatoa, on which is a massive and dangerous volcano, as well as a secret colony of San Franciscans who are fabulously rich by virtue of the diamond mines beneath the mountain. They've built a kind of utopia, complete with a Restaurant Government, a Balloon Amusement Park, and chairs that rocket around the room. Because they are kind and generous people, the Krakatoans welcome Sherman as a permanent guest, not able to leave the island but well cared for there.
Sherman isn't there long, however, before the entire population is forced to evacuate, due to the sudden eruption of the volcano. Each family takes a bag of diamonds, a family parachute, and some food, and boards a giant platform balloon designed to get all of them off the island in less than fifteen minutes. As the last man aboard the vehicle, Sherman winds up in the Atlantic, and the book ends where it began, with a heroic Sherman relating a tale that seems scarcely believable but which is met with great acclaim.
Du Bois writes in much the same way as the great 19th century adventure writers, but with a heavy dose of both verbal and situational humor. His descriptions of balloons are scientifically accurate, but are brief enough not to bore readers, and his use of the real volcano island of Krakatoa and its actual eruption in 1883 lend credibility to his far-fetched tale. Plenty of surprises and turns will keep even reluctant readers pressing on, and du Bois's own comedic illustrations bring many characters and events to life.
The list of Newbery Medal winners is long, and there are all kinds of books on it. For whatever reason, there are few that are simply lighthearted adventure stories (odd, since it's an award for children's literature), but The Twenty-One Balloons is one of them. You won't find deep ruminations on the nature of existence or tear-jerking scenes of pathos and beauty, but you will laugh a lot, be on the edge of your seat more than once, and have almost as good a time as old Sherman must have, sailing through the clouds with no worries.
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