If the chances of dying in a plane crash are pretty slim, being the sole survivor is even less likely. Slighter still, one would think, are the chances that two American novels published in the same month would feature sole plane crash survivors — but that's what we have here.
Make sure you have tissues handy when you read Ann Napolitano's Dear Edward, a sure-footed tearjerker about the miraculous — but troubled — survival of a 12-year-old boy in a crash that kills all of the other 191 people on board a jet bound from Newark to Los Angeles, including his parents and older brother.
In Kingdomtide, Rye Curtis' stirring debut, the survivor is a 72-year-old woman who miraculously walks away from the wreckage of a small plane in Montana's Bitterroot National Forest, leaving the mangled bodies of the pilot and her husband of 54 years, whose corpse is suspended in a tree down a treacherous cliff. Perhaps even more amazing, she lives another 20 years to tell the heart-pounding tale of how she made it out of the woods.
Both novels are about the aftermath of trauma and how survival against the odds profoundly changes these characters' lives and attitudes. Both protagonists prevail thanks to support from unexpected sources, and in both books, kindness helps steer heartbreaking tales in heartwarming directions. Of the two, Dear Edward is more moving, but Kingdomtide, although less even, is more riveting and surprising.
Napolitano, whose most recent novel, A Good Hard Look (2011), fictionalized Flannery O'Connor's last years, has assembled a well-oiled literary machine capable of conveying a panoply of humanity. With each chapter headed by a time stamp, the narrative of Dear Edward interweaves two tracks: a detailed account of the hours leading up to the June 12th, 2013 crash of Flight 2977, and its aftermath, charting Edward's long path to healing against a backdrop of unwanted celebrity.
The flight portion of our entertainment includes painstaking descriptions of security procedures, boarding, pre-flight instructions, drinks, meals, and much more of the tedious minutiae of air travel. These routine details are clearly intended to ratchet up the sense of impending doom (although we've already learned of the crash early in the book) and to underscore how calamity can upend mundanity in a flash. But they also make Flight 2977 feel at times excruciatingly long for a coast-to-coast trip — and not always airborne even before the crash.
In order to highlight what is lost in the disastrous accident, Napolitano presents capsule portraits of some of the passengers who go down with the Airbus A321. She has rounded up a deliberate cross-section of Americans, and her omniscient third person narrator switches perspectives between them with the alacrity of a restless passenger clicking through in-flight movie options. Among them are an ailing, cantankerous, wheelchair-bound billionaire and his nurse; an injured, sexually conflicted black soldier who is leaving the army with a lot more baggage than his colostomy bag; a Wall Street wunderkind fueled by cocaine who gets off with the sexy first class flight attendant in an aft bathroom; and Edward's mother, who's seated up front in first class in order to work on a screenplay for the new job that's driving her family's move to California. Her husband, a mathematician recently denied tenure at Columbia, sits in steerage with Eddie (as he's called before his second life) and his adolescent brother.
Dear Edward is in part a tale of survivor guilt, which is fueled by the weight of oppressive, often bizarre expectations on the miracle boy, especially from the families of victims who want him to fulfill their loved ones' dreams and plans. "Stop expecting me to have hidden powers, okay? I'm not a freaking wizard," he explodes at one point. It takes Edward years to learn to live with the aftershocks of the tragedy and absorb the liberating fact that, far from being chosen for a special purpose, his survival was just "dumb luck."
Rye Curtis' 72-year-old retired grade school teacher and librarian, a devout Methodist from small town Texas, is too busy trying to stay alive in the savage Bitterroot Mountains to feel much survivor guilt. Kingdomtide — part intense adventure story, part morality tale — is narrated by clear-eyed, refreshingly direct 92-year-old Cloris Waldrip from the assisted living facility in Brattleboro, Vt., where she's living out her last years. As she notes, "A tale belongs to whoever tells it best," and this one's hers. The novel's title is tied to the August 31, 1986 crash date, which fell on the first Sunday of Kingdomtide — an obsolete liturgical season of charity that spanned 13 or 14 Sundays between Pentecost and Advent.
Like Dear Edward, Kingdomtide braids two narrative strands that cut like intersecting streams through the valley of this novel, but Cloris' survival story flows with more force than the chapters featuring the forest ranger who refuses to abandon the search for her. Merlot-sotted, bitterly divorced, foul-mouthed Debra Lewis — along with her crew of brokenhearted misfits – truck and trek and drink and spar their way through the rough terrain, picking up occasional signs of life in dual manhunts for Cloris and a suspected child molester who's wanted by the FBI for the disappearance of a 10-year-old girl. These chapters present a study in profound loneliness, but they cannot compete with the novel's central adventure.
One of Kingdomtide's concerns is with the vagaries of desire, and Curtis doesn't stint on sometimes wince-inducing details that are not for the fastidious: Weird sex in a hot-tub from which a dead skunk has just been tossed; a cross-dresser who dons a bear costume to chase partying teens off his property; a hermit whose wrists are braceleted with the waistbands of girls' underwear; and a crazed local trailer-dweller, "Goddamn Silk Foot Maggie," who fashions sculptures out of garbage, cat skeletons, and "used tampons for earrings," all bound with electrical tape and melted candles.
The post-accident, newly open-minded Cloris comments, "I have come to believe that who or what we desire cannot be helped ... And I do not blame people for knowing what they want. I only blame them for doing anything and everything to get it without a thought to the consequences."
Curtis keeps us turning pages as Cloris confronts bobcats, hypothermia, starvation, icy inundation, and a strange mountain lion who walks backwards. "It is peculiar how the human spirit endures," she comments. "A person can get used to a situation, even if that situation may have once seemed intolerable."
Her remark applies to Napolitano's bereft boy as well. Predicated on cataclysmic, life-changing accidents, Dear Edward and Kingdomtide offer two transportative reads — and two different takes on the human ability to adapt in order to survive.