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Two former prisoners of the Vietnam War, one an Indian from the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and the other a veterinarian, both alcoholic and psychologically scarred, reunite and fly to Montana's Glacier national Park. When they make a forced landing in the wilderness, their plane breaks a strut and they have no choice but to make camp for the winter. Eventually, they are joined by two young twin sisters who have wandered off their trail. During fierce winter storms they are marooned together in a small cabin, struggling to keep warm, find enough to eat and, hopefully, wait for a break in the weather. All four are lost, not only physically, but also psychically, and it is this unplanned intimacy, the struggle to survive, and the developing friendships that lead to the transformations that lie at the heart of this novel. Both harrowing and beautiful, Prisoners of Flight uses the power of nature and metaphor to illuminate the human condition.(
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Book Review The Independent July 2, 2003
By Joan Baum
We wince, we keep reading. This first novel by a Montana doctor of veterinary medicine moves with compelling, sometimes beautiful, and sometimes brutal, imagery. Shelley is famously blunt for opening his elegiac tribute to Keats, "I weep for Adonais -- he is dead."
But here's Gustafson, starting off this strange tale of bonding in the Northwest wilderness with "Henson's dead." Hen Son, part Blackfeet Indian, part Cree, had his name anglicized by the military. Later on, what Vietnam did not destroy, Captain Henson lost to a fishing accident and an inability to reconnect with the world of civilization -- an eye, his wife, his ranching business, though not his love of nature or a capacity for deep friendship with the narrator, Dr. Sling Roop, a veterinarian.
Their lives go back to training days in the Air Force Academy and then, after being shot down over the China Sea, to time spent at the Hanoi "Hilton," where they were tortured. Prisoners of flight, they become prisoners of those memories. Ironically, they also find escape from the past in flying.
Prisoners of Flight begins with a brief present-tense prologue by Sling, who is airborne, but as he recalls Henson's recent death, and "clouds bleed up the setting sun," his judgment falters and the plane goes down. Injured, stunned, memories invade, and the stream of consciousness that ensues constitutes the actual story that will eventually connect with the prologue and explain how Henson died. The memories are many-layered but center on the recent weeks when Sling and Henson lived together in the wilderness after they flew blind and crashed in a desolate part of northern Montana. Within minutes of that crash, two college-age girls appeared, having seen the plane fall. They are twins, running away from an unhappy home and searching for their dog, who bounded into the forest. The situation is bizarre, but Gustafson avoids the expected and with great skill pulls their stories together, showing how they are all prisoners of flight. Essentially, however, the novel is a story between Sling and Hen, maimed souls whose travails allow them to communicate with subtle gestures and code, and whose fierce need to escape into a pure, albeit dangerous sky, speaks volumes about the psychological and physical damage wrought by the Vietnam war, the addictions it bred, and the irreparable social discontent it generated.
It's amazing what Gustafson packs in, including lore about veterinary medicine, some of it as discomforting as it is true, about what the most compassionate animal lover has to undergo interning and then in practice. War made Sling "an animal" and drove him to drugs, but another war drew him to alcohol -- the losing battle against "stupid heartless people" who insisted he put their healthy pets to sleep. He loses wife, son, daughter, and home. Nonetheless, he is an admirable, decent human being, and readers will lament the passing of his kind: Machines? Not for him. They don't know "the tone, the surge of capillaries, the pulsing blood." People today "insist on machines--numeric proof, undeniable proof. They don't trust a doctor's touch, not anymore. I'm on my way out."
In the wilderness, with Henson, Sling finds the insecurity he needs to slow him down and allow him to be a fully sensate being. "Living here is a ceremony, replete with sacrifice and rapture." Together, in nurturing mode, Sling and Henson teach the girls what it means to live and face death. Yet, for all his instinctive and intuitive smarts, Sling knows he is not an animal, that man cannot live in the wilderness, that flight has limits. This is a haunting book. As summer deepens and city folk look to nature, to the outback, to so-called roughing it, it is refreshing to come across a literary account of The Real Thing -- so graphic, so poetically rendered.
In Prisoners of Flight, Sid Gustafson's veterinarian protagonist refers often to angels: "We haven't heard from our angels in a long time. But they're out there . . . waiting somewhere in the sky."
Two ex-military pilots, Gustafson's protagonist and his comrade, Henson, crash their plane into wilderness alongside Montana's Flathead River. Former Vietnam POWs, they have wrestled with life's trials ever since, holding to a single constant: a fierce longing for an idealized sky. Says Gustafson's protagonist: "The flying rule is: When in doubt, do nothing. But I'm not flying anymore." For indeed, Gustafson's characters are themselves fallen forms of the angels they seek.
Gustafson (B.S., D.V.M. '77) manages both an economy of words and a compelling lyricism. There's a rhythm here that makes for a read difficult to interrupt. And he's not afraid to toss the rules. Single-word sentences. Pop phraseology. Recurring metaphors. The result is a harrowing adventure part magical realism (with a hint of psychedelia), part paean to the deep forest, part redemption chronicle, and part cryptogram.
Gustafson strands his characters with only a river shack for shelter. Soon, twin sisters--"two breathless earth cookies"--searching for their dog (named Hope--"lost Hope") emerge from the forest cold and bewildered.
The protagonist recalls how he and Henson communicated cell-to-cell as POWs--through tapping out a simple alphabetic code. They repeatedly refer to this "old dance," often lapsing into it. Acutely aware of their frailties and failures, they call often on God. And while longing to be back in the sky, they fool themselves like lost boys whistling in the dark that happiness can be found on the ground: "Our earthbound angels can't stop smiling. And we thought they only lived in the constellations of our skyblown minds."
The narrative dealing with Henson's fate is both mythic and sad. (I'm not giving away much here, since the first two words of Gustafson's novel are, "Henson's dead.") Finally, the protagonist's escape and redemption are pulse-pounding.
There is much that is satisfying about Prisoners of Flight. Best is that it ends, as all good prayers do, with a single word, tapped out in code:
-- Brian Ames '85, author of Smoke Follows Beauty (Pocol Press, 2002), Head Full of Traffic, (Pocol Press, 2004),and Eighty-Sixed (Word Riot Press, 2004).Washington State Magazinewsm.wsu.edu/r/index.php?id=51#.V3q91FeBCdF
An unlikely foursome are trapped in an abandoned Montana cabin for the winter in Gustafson's off-key first novel. Engine trouble forces two 50-something war buddies Sling and Henson to land their small plane in the wilderness, damaging the craft in the rough landing. They soon encounter college-age twin sisters ("two breathless earth cookies") who have strayed into the woods looking for their lost dog. The four discover a handy cabin with a supply of flour, cornstarch, cookware and even skis. They dine on the trout Sling catches and the grouse that Henson brings down with a nifty antique bow and arrow set he brought along. The women cook, clean and are duly impressed by the men's accomplishments. Sling, who narrates the tale, reveals that he has been partially deaf since his imprisonment in a North Vietnamese POW camp. He works as a veterinarian and relies on taste and smell to diagnose animal illnesses ("I taste the sweetness of a diabetic cat's urine and know her need for insulin. I smell the breath of a milk-fevered cow and know the depth of her ketosis..."). The sisters, whose father died in a plane crash, talk about their unhappy home life. Henson, who is a Blackfoot/Cree Indian, wants to return to the land, an inclination fueled by the appearance of Kid, a lost Indian deer hunter who stumbles upon their camp just in time for disaster to strike. The improbability of the plot twists is matched by the unintentional humor of the imprecise, strained prose ("Soon we all dream. The dreaming that sleep in the selfsame room awakens, selfsame dreaming").
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Book Description Permanent Press, 2003. Paperback. Condition: New. Never used!. Seller Inventory # P111579620884