Review: The Twenty One Balloons by William Pene du Bois

The Twenty One Balloons - William Pène du Bois

[Still reading children's books. Why we have them around is covered in this review. Short version: children's reading program, public schools.]


Oddly I'd read about this book before I realized there was a copy lying around here. In the book Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883 (link to my vague review of mostly quotes) by Simon Winchester, this book is mentioned in the chapter called Recommendations for (and, in One Case Against) Further Reading and Viewing. It's not one that Winchester is recommending you avoid, if you were curious. But he does give a plot summary, and I am lazy so I'll quote. (The fact that I have the book handy is another reason to do this. It's rare that this happens.) So um, spoilers?


p 386: ...a slim volume of a children's book, published to near-universal  praise in 1947...


...The children's story was The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene du Bois: it won America's reknowned Newbery Medal in 1948, and has never been out of print since. It tells the story of  a math teacher from San Francisco named William Waterman Sherman, who flies in a balloon westward across the Pacific, crash-landing (after seagulls pecked holes in the silk fabric) on what turns out to be "the Pacific island of Krakatoa." Here the impeccably dressed locals are all fabulously rich, since the volcano in the island's center sits directly on top of an immense diamond mine.


The resulting story is all about the professor's adventures among the remarkable people of a utopia, which, because of the eruption of 1883, swiftly becomes a dangerous dystopia. All have to flee in a specially built balloon-lifted platform. The book - 180 pages, endearing, illustrated by its thirty-year old author - is enchanting; most intelligent children will have read it, and they will in consequence know Krakatoa as, at the very least, a place both dangerous and beautiful, and wondrously exotic.


Winchester then goes on to discuss the movie to avoid, unless you enjoy bad films: Krakatoa, East of Java, directed by Bernard Kowalski, who is also to blame responsible for Night of the Blood Beast and Attack of the Giant Leeches. (I've seen the leech film, and possibly the Blood Beast. I'm not entirely sure because I slept through it, which is sad seeing that it's the MST3K version.) Krakatoa was never east of Java by the way - it's to the west.


If you want a much more through plot description, here's a really lengthy one:


Wikipedia: The Twenty-One Balloons


The story reminded me a lot of Jules Verne, and I'm pretty sure the reader is meant to think that. It refers to Around the World in Eighty Days in the book itself - but it's attitudes toward exploration of unknown lands and fabulous adventure, not to mention balloons, are all hat-tips to Verne.


I'm completely on board for the adventure and weirdness. I liked the idea that the citizens of Krakatoa had twenty houses, each with architecture from different countries. In each house the owner had a restaurant that served all the foods native to that country. The bizarre inventions were fun too.


Here's the part where I realize I'm both too old and living in the wrong time period to really like this story. All the inhabitants of Krakatoa are from San Francisco. Because this American sailor stumbles on this diamond mine in a place where the local folk will never look for it, and he decides to build his own secret town of people. He decides to choose its population from a group of San Francisco families he personally selects. The only time the local folk - of which there are plenty in that area of the world and have been for eons - are mentioned is in a discussion of food:


p 88-90:


"Is there a Krakatoan restaurant?" I asked.


"Naturally. It is run by Mr. K. and specializes in dishes of strictly native foods; odd dishes prepared from the bread of the bread palms; cocoanuts, bananas and more exotic fruits, and mostly wonderful fish which are so easily found in  the ocean which surrounds us. We couldn't think of what style of architecture to use for a Krakatoan restaurant, so we invented one. It is made out of crystal glass bricks, to suggest the diamond mines which are the Island's most guarded treasures; and inside of these glass bricks we have sealed rare and colorful tropical fish, because for many months they were our main source of food. It looks like a house made of ice cubes and fresh fish and is a very inviting place to eat on 'K' Day of the hot summer months."


I might not have known quite so much about the area myself before reading Winchester's book, but here's the wikipedia page for Krakatoa. You'll note it's in Indonesia, which has it's own culinary traditions as well as multiple types of architecture. And that's not counting the variety the Dutch brought in when they took over a chunk of the area (without any invitation). Oh but the characters in the book have picked up some Dutch recipes - because the most important thing for the Kraktoan/San Franciscans is fine cooking, which they've researched and practiced extensively.


Living in the current time period I can't read this and not wonder where, in the story, all the local folk are while this is happening on Krakatoa. Mr. F explains all sorts of ways his people hide themselves and their wealth from the locals, and how they're actually the good guys in this because if they flooded the market with their endless supply of diamonds the gemstone would become worthless. Which um, no, that's not you guys being noble, that's protecting your source of wealth. But then K et al don't try to hide the fact that, aside from all the cooking and house building, they're basically rich folk who live to amuse themselves and secretly spend their money. Yes, I realize this is fantasy - but the setting is the real world of 1880s, and much of it is portrayed as similar to the one which existed in history so....


I can see that if I didn't have my perspective on the world - in other words, if I was zapped back to kid-me who hasn't had much education on the rest of the globe and its people, not to mention economics and class structure - then I'd enjoy this story and it's riff on Jules Verne. This content doesn't make me angry - it's written in 1947 after all, but it does mean I sigh and eyeroll over it. Then I chalk it up as yet another example of how my countrymen have for hundreds of years repeatedly written stories where Americans are the most important people, even when the setting isn't our own country.


(Oddly du Boise spent a chunk of his childhood in France, returning to his US birthplace when he was 14. He was stationed overseas during the war. In theory he could have being playing the Phileas Fogg card - making his lead blissfully ignorant and mocking instead of English-ness, American-ness. Only that's not in the text anywhere, and the writing isn't clever enough to indicate that's subtext.)


Would I still use this in class? Oh you bet. Because one of the problematic things when we have older lit like this is erasing this problem completely by never calling attention to it - instead of using it as an example of the problem and teaching with it. It should be read, then discussed - in particular "what's wrong with this picture, whose story is missing? And why does thinking of them change the story?" It's also a great way to introduce thinking about specific populations and then outward to larger populations which contain those smaller ones. (Not to mention bringing in the history of that entire area of the world.) Thinking critically about literature is something everyone is taught sooner or later - usually in elementary school. (You may not have realized it at the time, but I guarantee that was how teachers described it in their lesson plans.)  And aside from ethical discussions, the book has some great story problems throughout, dealing with how much weight balloons can carry - easily tied in to math assignments. (I hated story problems, but no one ever read a fun story and then made math problems out of it. I would have loved that.)


If I was a parent I'd read this to my child. It'd make a good bedtime story because much of it is at a slow pace and that is usually good to get kids sleepy. (The professor doesn't start telling his story until page 35 - up til then it's all teasing "what happened to him?!") As a plus, the illustrations are enjoyable in that there are a good deal of them (that was my standard, as a child), and there are some silly and mildly amusing parts. But I'd supplement it with later perusal of an atlas, books on balloons throughout history, and then a factual text on the science of volcanoes. Because I didn't even touch on the fact that um, I'm pretty sure the volcanic explosion would have killed everyone at multiple points in the story. (The balloon science seems weak too, but I don't have any background in that.) Let's face it, kids do like that grim kind of factual discussion. And er, I did too, especially when reading Winchester's book. Volcanoes are amazing in their destructive power.



Random quotes:

p 49:

My balloon house was nice to travel in, for except at noontime, when the sun was directly overhead, there was always one side of the porch where I could sit in the warm sun. I did a great deal of reading. Seated in a comfortable chair, my feet propped up on balustrade - this was a truly enjoyable mode of life.


(At this last remark of Professor Sherman's, the other explorers  in the well-behaved audience couldn't restrain a deeply felt sigh.)


p 62

...I didn't bother putting on the collar, and started rolling up my sleeves. "Let's go, lead on," I said.


"Come, come," said the gentleman from Krakatoa. "You can't come and visit us like that. Is that the way you would call on respectable people in San Francisco, New York, London, or Paris? Roll down those sleeves. Put on this collar, vest and coat." As he was saying this he was smiling warmly to show that he meant no ill feeling but was merely setting me straight on Krakatoa style and manners. "I'll admit," he continued, "that on other islands in the Pacific it is considered quite the thing to give up shaving, forego haircuts, and wear whatever battered white ducks and soft shirts are available. Here we prefer a more elegant mode of life. You sir," he said, "are our first visitor. I am quite certain that you will be rather impressed with the way we live and with the various aspects of our Island. I hope you will be impressed anyhow, for since we believe in keeping the place absolutely secret, I believe you will be finding yourself spending the rest of your life as our guest."


This is way less threatening than it sounds. Part of remaining there means the Professor gets his own portion of diamonds. And they don't believe in murder so there's never an "or else we'll kill you." Mr. K makes a point of reassuring him on that.


p 87:

"We have an unusual Constitution. It's sort of a Restaurant Government. There are twenty families on the Island, each running a restaurant. We made it a law here that each family shall go to a different restaurant every night of the month, around the village square in rotation. In this way no family in Krakatoa has to work more than once every twenty days, and every family is assured a great variety of food."


..."There are twenty restaurants around the village square here. We lettered them A, B, C, D, E, and F, all around the square up to T, the twentieth house. We changed their names. In "A" Restaurant live Mr. A., his wife Mrs. A., their son A-1, and their daughter A-2. In "B" Restaurant live Mr. B., Mrs. B., B-1 and B-2; it's very simple."


p 106-107

"...These chairs are supposed to save people trouble. Look," he said. He sat in an armchair and drew the tiller around in front of him. "I shall now move effortlessly around the card table and stop in front of the window. There is a button at the end of this tiller which I will press to start me off. I will steer the chair with the tiller, and stop it by taking my thumb off the button. Are you ready?"


"Go ahead," I said, backing into a corner.


Mr. F. pushed the button in the tip of the tiller. The chair shot around the table at breakneck speed, stopped in front of the window with such suddenness that Mr. F. was plunged head first out of the chair out through the open window. A shower of blue sparks followed the trail of the chair as the brush rubbed on the mesh ceiling.


"There," said Mr. F., climbing back through the window out of breath and with a most distressed look on his face. "You can see that this is hardly what one might call an improvement in livingrooms."


"....The room has been turned over to them [the children] and their playroom has been made into a livingroom for Mr. and Mrs. M. All of the children on the Island spend many hours a day driving the easy chairs around the room, yelling and screaming and bumping into each other. The couch holds about four children and is the fastest in the room. I would hate to predict what will become of this younger, mechanically minded generation."


From the illustrations these look very much like amusement park bumper cars. This is also a brief example of the way some of the long explanations of "how something works" can get dull in the way the details are written. Believe me, there are much longer examples.


p. 135:

The next morning I ate breakfast with my fellow-Krakatoans at Mr. C.'s Chinese restaurant. I will tell you quite frankly that I have no idea of what I ate at any of the meals on "C" Day. I am not too partial to Oriental food and didn't even dare to ask what I was eating for fear that any accurate description or analysis would only add to the uneasiness with which I suffered through each meal. I noticed many of the children toyed with their dishes with equal apprehension. I used their method of eating some of the portions which consisted of removing the toasted almonds from the top carefully, with a fork, and leaving the rest. Mr. F. scolded me for this display of timidity and poor taste, and told me that to acquire an appreciation of good food I should show a little more courage and will to experiment. I assured him that I had a great desire to become an accomplished gourmet while living under the Restaurant Government, but preferred to arrive at this in gradual stages over a long period of time.


I know people old enough to still call anything Asian "Oriental." I then ask if they were great chums with Marco Polo. I'm not popular at such moments. Also I'll note here that the professor is from San Francisco himself, where they actually did have Asian food - or Americanized versions - at the time. Can't say if it was good or not, but then he doesn't give any detail on his reason for disliking it. It is also strange that this is a man who wants to travel, a part of which is eating foreign foods.