Friday, September 11, 2015

Julie's Review: The Last Pilot

Author: Benjamin Johncock
Series: None
Publication Date: July 7, 2015
Publisher: Picador
Pages: 320
Obtained: publisher
Genre:  Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Bottom Line: Personalized look at the sacrifices families made for the race to space
Grab, Just get it at the library, or Remove from your TBR list? Grab!
Summary: "Harrison sat very still. On the screen was the surface of the moon." Jim Harrison is a test pilot in the United States Air Force, one of the exalted few. He spends his days cheating death in the skies above the Mojave Desert and his nights at his friend Pancho's bar, often with his wife, Grace. She and Harrison are secretly desperate for a child-and when, against all odds, Grace learns that she is pregnant, the two are overcome with joy. While America becomes swept up in the fervor of the Space Race, Harrison turns his attention home, passing up the chance to become an astronaut to welcome his daughter, Florence, into the world. Together, he and Grace confront the thrills and challenges of raising a child head-on. Fatherhood is different than flying planes-less controlled, more anxious-however the pleasures of watching Florence grow are incomparable. But when his family is faced with a sudden and inexplicable tragedy, Harrison's instincts as a father and a pilot are put to test. As a pilot, he feels compelled to lead them through it-and as a father, he fears that he has fallen short. The aftermath will haunt the Harrisons and strain their marriage as Jim struggles under the weight of his decisions. Beginning when the dust of the Second World War has only just begun to settle and rushing onward into the Sixties, Benjamin Johncock traces the path of this young couple as they are uprooted by events much larger than themselves. The turns the Harrisons take together are at once astonishing and recognizable; their journey, both frightening and full of hope. Set against the backdrop of one of the most emotionally charged periods in American history, The Last Pilot is a mesmerizing debut novel of loss and finding courage in the face of it from an extraordinary new talent.  

Review: The Last Pilot is an inside look at what it took to race the Soviets to the moon. It's wrapped in the history of that time with some very famous names splattered throughout the book but the journey for Jim and Grace Harrison is very personal. It is of great triumphs, losses, heartbreak and reconciliation.

While Jim is stationed in the Mojave desert as an Air Force test pilot, him and Grace try for years to have a child with no avail. They make their lives work by surrounding themselves with friends who become family. A community where they are all out in the middle of  nowhere they ban together to support each other.  This community will also produce a lot of the astronauts for the space program.

Without explanation Grace becomes pregnant and gives birth to their daughter Florence. Florence brings both Grace and Jim much joy. She cements their marriage. When tragedy strikes, Grace and Jim deal with it in different ways. Graces folds into herself and Jim throws himself into his work. His dedication gets him recognized and is chosen to join the space program in Houston.

To say that Jim has an ego is an understatement but it's what makes him a fantastic pilot and an even better astronaut. You have to have a certain swagger to even be considered for that job and to be able to take the pressure. Unfortunately an ego can't belong in a marriage. As Jim and Grace deal with their grief, they freeze each other out in their own ways. Instead of coming together in their grief, they drive a wedge in their marriage.

What I thought that Mr. Johncock did so well was make Jim and Grace human. Meaning, that you don't root for one or the other but you root for them as a couple. They compliment each other but Grace's life has always hinged on Jim's and his career. This was expected at this time in society but to be expected to stay at home when you have no kids to raise and your husband always gone, had to be a very lonely life for her.

I didn't find myself siding with Jim or Grace more. I felt that I understood both sides of their story and could empathize with each of them. I also think that Pancho deserves her own novel or at least a short story. She was absolutely fascinating and sometimes the voice of reason that should have been in Jim's brain.

I'm not a space geek by any stretch of the imagination and I enjoyed reading about the names I knew about (Jim Lovell) and doing Google searches for those I wasn't familiar with. The space race takes a backseat though to the relationship of Jim and Grace. If you are looking for a novel that focuses on the space race, The Last Pilot  isn't it but if you are looking for a novel that uses the history of that time period to delve into a marriage during that time, this is it.



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