Review Blog

May 07 2014

To the wild sky by Ivan Southall

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Text Classic reprint. Text Publishing, 2014. ISBN 9781922147868.
(Age: 12+) Recommended. Thirteen years of age is too young to have to deal with a life threatening emergency but when an aircraft pilot dies from heart failure, a group of children on board are forced to respond.
Gerald, the son of a wealthy pastoralist invites a group of friends to a birthday party at the family sheep station and the group travels in a light aircraft from the town. The lad is much admired by two boys, Bruce and Colin, and a girl, Carol, who is smitten by him. Bruce's twin sister Janet dislikes both Gerald and Colin yet has been invited along with Colin's immature younger brother Mark, from politeness.
Having flown beside his father in the past, Gerald has had the chance to 'take the wheel' and has some rudimentary knowledge of flying which enables him to recover the aircraft when the pilot dies. Maintaining altitude, direction and adjusting engine speed are completely new to him however and his epic struggle to master these over five hours in the face of an enormous dust storm is brilliantly portrayed. The author was a wartime pilot and his knowledge of light aircraft operation enables him to describe the myriad interconnected factors and implications in a way which allows the reader to appreciate the enormity of the situation. The tension is excruciating as Gerald grapples with both the aeroplane and the almost intolerable responsibility to try to save those on board whilst the passengers impotently wrestle their personal terrors.
A crash landing with only minor injuries to those on board is an amazing outcome but the group's trials are only just beginning when they realise that they have no idea where they are and that the chance of rescue is minimal given that they have flown off course for many hours.
Different aspects of leadership, heroism, fortitude and initiative are explored in the events which follow and it is delightful to revisit a story from the sixties which remains solid and captivating for modern readers. Southall writes honestly and does not hold back from revealing gritty and confronting aspects to survival, including the description of what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The author was also way ahead of his time in promoting Indigenous pride and respecting the knowledge and skills which enabled survival in extreme environments. Some of the language and social propriety in the narrative is perfectly ridiculous under the circumstances and it is a shame that the convention of the time prevented him from using realistic dialogue. However this is an absolute must-read for those 12 years onwards who relish exciting survival stories.
Rob Welsh

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