Book Review: Battling the Clouds by Captain Frank Cobb
It is shortly after World War One, and two boys, both sons of majors, have come to be stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Frank Anderson’s father is in Aviation, while Bill Sherman’s stepfather is a teacher at the School of Fire (Artillery.) Bill is new to Army life, his mother only recently having remarried, but he has an uncle in the automotive design business that built a miniature (but fully functional) car for him. Frank is a little envious, especially after Bill’s family gets Corporal Lee, who’s part Cherokee, to be their orderly.
While in town one day, the two friends meet Horace Jardin, scion of the Jardin automotive empire. Horace is boastful and spoiled, but extremely wealthy, something Frank would like to be. That fall, all three of them wind up at the same boarding school back East, because it’s the only one that has an aviation program. Indeed, a Canadian boy named Ernest is also attending for the same reason.
But all is not study and flying lessons. For there’s been a robbery, with an innocent man accused. Only a desperate cross country flight by a first time pilot can save the day!
This book is surprisingly good, better than several of the similar ones I’ve recently read, despite being written for an even younger audience. To put it in a single word, this book has nuance. Yes, the moralizing is rather heavy-handed. But some of the story is told from the viewpoint of the villain, detailing how what was once a small personality flaw leads him bit by bit down the path of crime.
SPOILERS from this point on.
A nice touch is that Jardin isn’t the bad guy here. Yes, he’s a spoiled brat, and a bad influence, but he’s not the villain. Frank is, letting his envy drive him from using racist statements to try to turn Bill against Lee, to pawning his grandfather’s watch under an assumed name, to theft and finally assault with a deadly weapon. He even attempts to swindle Jardin out of a perfectly good airplane with sabotage.
Bill, by contrast, is a little goody-two-shoes, who always obeys his mother and follows rules–but is naive and fails to grasp until nearly too late what’s been happening with Frank. Did I mention they’re both twelve?
There’s some odd statements about Native Americans in the narration, but the only overtly racist sentiments come from Ernest (ignorant) and Frank (deliberately malicious.) Frank’s also rather sexist, showing this mostly by denigrating sensible things Bill does as “like a girl” or “only a woman cares about that sort of thing.” Bill notes that the best knitter he knows is a very manly big game hunter.
While the story takes forever to really get going (and then piles on the coincidences in the last couple of chapters) there are some gems in the meantime, like this passage:
“All through luncheon Frank thought of the money. He went off into day-dreams in which he rescued the daughter of the Colonel from all sorts of dangers and invariably after each rescue, the Colonel would say, ‘My boy, thanks are too tame. I insist, in fact I order you to accept this little token of my regard.’ And then he would press into Frank’s hand six hundred dollars. It was thrilling; and in a day-dream so easy.
“The fact that the Colonel’s daughter was a strapping damsel who stood five feet eight and weighed one hundred and sixty pounds and always took the best of care of herself in all kinds of tight places without asking odds of anyone, did not affect Frank’s day-dreams at all. Neither did the fact that the Colonel was well known to be so close with his money that he had learned to read the headlines upside down so that he seldom had to buy a paper of a newsy! Six hundred dollars…it would have killed him!”
I kind of want to read about the tight-fisted Colonel and his highly competent (and strapping) daughter and their adventures. Late in the book, we also meet a farm boy named Webby, who we are told was inspired by his small part in events to become a great man.
This book should be suitable for kids (especially boys) ten and up, but with the usual caveat that parents should help them understand that the 1920s was a time with different attitudes. (And there are now laws against 12-year-olds driving cars on public highways.)