Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Book Review: "The Last Pilot" by Benjamin Johncock

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to Picador for making it available!

In The Last Pilot, Benjamin Johncock brings a true-to-life, "you are there" feeling to the fictionalized story of Jim Harrison, a test pilot for the U.S. Air Force, who in the late 1940s and 1950s was one of the elite few attempting to break the sound barrier. It was a dangerous task, one that led to countless pilot deaths and injuries, but the risk was worth the potential reward.

Harrison and his wife Grace live in the middle of the Mojave Desert along with the other pilots risking their lives for this achievement. And if the worry over the potential harm that could come to Jim wasn't enough, the couple is struggling with fertility issues, although they want so desperately to have a baby. And when Grace miraculously becomes pregnant, Jim puts aside the chance to become one of the nation's first astronauts so he can help raise the couple's daughter, Florence.

When tragedy strikes, Jim must decide whether to pursue the opportunity to join the Space Race, or wallow in the sadness and guilt that threaten to envelop him. But although he has shown tremendous bravery and fortitude in the face of amazing risk and danger, he is utterly unprepared for how hiding his pain may come to haunt him, not to mention the effect a life in the public spotlight will have on his marriage.

Jim appears alongside such real-life astronauts as John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Jim Lovell, Chuck Yeager, and Deke Slayton, but his inclusion in their story never seems false. This is a tremendously well-researched and interesting look at the U.S. in the midst of the Space Race, and how the astronauts dealt with all they faced. But beyond that, this is a book about how dangerous unacknowledged feelings of guilt can be, and the harm that comes from the things that remain unsaid. It's a powerful look at grief and loss, and the need to come to terms with one's feelings.

If you're interested in the early days of the Space Race and never tire of movies like The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, this might be a book for you. Johncock goes into immense detail to provide context, but even while he's immersing you in facts, he's also capturing emotions as accurately. Maybe it was all of the detail that numbed this book's appeal for me; while I thought it was well-written, it just didn't grab me as I had hoped it might, but I've seen many other 4- and 5-star reviews, so it might just be me.

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