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A Little More than an Ordinary Plane Trip
on 14 September 2009
Most people today think nothing of getting on airplane, and a few hours later, arriving at their destination half the world away with no more to complain about than poor service by the stewardess. It wasn't always this way, and even today going to some remote locations has at least some difficulties associated with it. This book details the adventures of three very disparate people, an Oxford don, his class conscious daughter, and an independent-minded pilot as they embark on a trip from England to Greenland during the mid-thirties in an attempt by the professor to prove that the Celts came along with the Norsemen during their exploration and colonization period of about AD1000.
Greenland is not a very hospitable place, with few inhabitants, almost no ports, unpredictable and typically highly inclement weather, and ice-locked most of the year. The preparations needed to go there at the time of this novel were extensive, approaching the level of effort of the Scott and Amundsen polar expeditions, though on a much smaller scale. Almost all of this effort falls on the shoulders of the pilot, from purchasing, assembling and testing an appropriate sea-plane to ordering supplies, obtaining the required documents, setting up logistical support bases, and finding and hiring an appropriately skilled photographer, all while working under a time deadline dictated by Greenland's very short summer.
Nevil's description of all of this work and the thought processes of his pilot are vivid, detailed, and highly believable. While progressing in the story line, his characters are richly developed. There is a natural antipathy between the working-man pilot and the daughter, who has led a very sheltered upper-class life, who naturally can't believe the cost and preparation required for the trip, so naturally believes that the pilot is merely out to pad his own pocket. But once they embark on the trip itself, the pilot's unstinting devotion to his work slowly wins her over, and a very predictable attraction starts to form between the two.
This is very typical of Nevil's work, as he was excellent at characterization and defining romantic attractions in a very believable and satisfying manner. Also typical is the fact that there are no bad guys or any high dramatic tension here. Instead his stories revolve around his characters, often very ordinary people dealing with the very mundane realities of life. This is a somewhat slow-moving book, typical of English novels written prior to WWII, but once adjusted to this novel's pace, I had no trouble remaining engrossed in the story.
There are some items here, though, that are not so good. Shute was an avionics engineer, and his knowledge of airplanes is very much on display here, probably a little too much so, with too many details about the plane gone over multiple times. There is a section near the end that digresses violently from the main story, almost a separate story in itself, that I did not think Shute did a proper job of preparing the reader for. The final ending that ties the main story and this other one together reeks of mysticism and was, I felt, unnecessary to completing his character's story arc.
Still, a very likeable read, probably not at the incredibly high level of things like his On the Beach or A Town Like Alice, but worthwhile reading.
---Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)