Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Avion My Uncle Flew

The Avion My Uncle Flew
by Cyrus Fisher
Recommended Ages: 10+

John Littlehorn, the youthful narrator of this story, is a fine example of a character who grows through his experiences. He becomes a little more admirable as he learns to enjoy himself and to act like less of a spoiled child. And though his attitude toward foreign languages and customs, especially those of his mother's native France, is depicted with a lightly satirical touch, he also learns to love France, and to speak French in a "see Spot run," boy's-first-reader sort of way. The cleverest thing is how he brings his non-French-speaking readers along for the trip, teaching them about as much of the French language as he learns during his two-month adventure in the mountains of south-central France.

At first, however, Johnny is not so very admirable - as he admits himself, with shame. He lets himself become a pampered invalid after a fall from a horse messes up his left leg. He becomes jealous of his mother's attachment to his father when the latter returns from World War II. And he digs in his heels when his parents take him to Paris to have his leg operated on and, on a doctor's advice, to send him upcountry with his uncle Paul Langres, a veteran of the French resistance who wants to see what became of his ancestral village, and perhaps build and test-fly an experimental aircraft there.

Some of John's resistance turns out to be based on real terror, inflicted by a Nazi official who has his own sinister plans for the Langres estate. But as no one ever seems to see or hear the things that keep giving John fits, he himself begins to doubt their reality and starts to enjoy his stay in the otherwise pleasant village. He makes a couple of friends his age, starts learning the language, and works on strengthening his leg in order to earn a bicycle promised by his parents if he recovers his ability to walk, and learns to speak French, by the end of the summer. He gets into just a little bit of trouble over his belief that a Nazi is still hiding out on the mountain - just a small matter of accidentally shooting the mayor's pig with a German pistol that nobody afterward can find. But it's when he hatches a really dubious scheme to persuade the townspeople to search in earnest for the hidden Nazi that Johnny blunders into heroism.

His uncle does fly the avion (French for airplane, but really a glider). But first Johnny takes a wild ride of his own, getting into some really thrilling scrapes and solving a mystery bigger than he realized he was dealing with. Meanwhile, every time he learns a new French word or phrase, he uses it instead of the English counterpart, until gradually the book progresses from 100 percent English to several pages of unbroken, but very easy, French. In between it is mostly told in a whimsical blend of the two languages, showing Johnny to have an unusual and often hilarious way of thinking and expressing himself.
In fact, as the night - la nuit, as they say, if you want to be fancy about it - as la nuit endured and hung on, the hours going slower and slower, in my judgment French trains weren't worth the powder to blow them off the track. And my opinion of the French idea of being comfortable dropped down lower than gravel.
In brief, I learned; I laughed; I had a great time.

This book, based loosely on its author's experiences as a Franco-American youth visiting France between the World Wars, won a 1947 Newbery Honor award. Cyrus Fisher was a juvenile-fiction pseudonym of author Darwin L. Teilhet (1904-64), a prolific author of mostly detective stories, often co-written with his wife Hildegarde Teilhet. Some of his other books were published under the pen-names William H. Fielding and Theo Durant. Among his other titles written as Cyrus Fisher are Ab Carmody's Treasure (set in Guatemala) and The Hawaiian Sword.

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