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Leaving Earth by Helen Humphreys

Leaving Earth (1997)

by Helen Humphreys

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Humphreys tends to gravitate towards writing historical period pieces so I was no surprise to discover that her debut novel depicts a portrayal of Depression-era Toronto. What was surprising - don't ask me why - was how Humphreys' took a theme like aviation and managed to write about the endurance flight in a way that allows the reader to experience the grueling endurance along side the two fictional female pilots. Grace O'Gorman and Willa Briggs are composite characters of the amazing female pilots of the 1930's... Louise Thaden, Ruth Nichols, Bobbi Trout, Amelia Earhart, Frances Harrell Marsalis and Helen Richey. All amazing women who would not let society's perceptions confine and restrict them from chasing their dreams.

Humphreys' approaches her story from a number of different perspectives: Flashy and confident Grace who is used to the world being her stage; the younger and more inexperienced Willa who is lacking in confidence but eager to please; Grace's older, wiser and somewhat jealous husband Jack who holds the current endurance record his wife is determined to break and young 12-year old Maddy, one of Grace's biggest fan. These character dynamics and differing points of view are enough to create an interesting story but Humphreys goes one further by adding in the growing tide of antisemitism, giving us two stories: one story playing out in the sky, with spectators watching from the ground and a second story focused firmly on the ground, trying to see into the future. Ambitious undertakings for a debut novel but Humphreys doesn't stop there. Oh no, she proceeds to add an examination of language in a visual tactile form (as opposed to our usual spoken or written form) to the mix as well as an examination of love. In the end, this ambitious first novel has a lot going for it, including Humphreys wonderful prose but its a bit too much crammed into one package, and at the expense of any solid character development. I am also annoyed that some of the story lines just 'end', leaving me hanging.

Overall, a good female aviation story with great depiction of Depression-era Toronto. ( )
  lkernagh | Nov 26, 2014 |
Just like the Aviatrix's Air Ace Grace and Willa in this book who are perpetually flying in the air to beat an endurance record so will you be as you fly through these pages of "Leaving Earth". ( )
  redheadish | Sep 7, 2014 |
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Helen Humphreys writes remarkably spare, uncluttered prose; she has a great knack for evoking unspoken love and finding stark beauty in matters as diverse as the sight of a burning ship at night or the creation of a silent language.
Ultimately, Leaving Earth is a perfectly good snack of a book – well-written enough to be intellectually satisfying, interesting enough to keep the reader’s attention, salty, and sweet – yet light enough that few readers will feel full when they’re done.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0393326756, Paperback)

"The plane slips from a spool of blue, stitches a confident loop in the sky. Willa stands by the hangar as the Moth roars above her head, growl of open throttle. The single figure in the rear cockpit waves as the plane flies low over the harbor airfield and then pulls up into a vertical climb. Up and up, the line so straight it could have been drawn with a ruler, could have been a harp string, the plane a note ascending."

Grace O'Gorman, the star-bright aviatrix of Helen Humphreys's debut novel, Leaving Earth, adores her Moth--a two-seat, open-cockpit biplane. It's the 1930s, and together they have wowed the world with stunts, solo long-distance flights, and other record-breaking trips. Glamorous "Air Ace" Grace feels most at home aloft, as opposed to down on Earth, in Toronto, with her husband. That, along with her competitiveness and affinity for fame, is why she's setting out to break the world flight endurance record. She teams up with a young female flyer, Willa Briggs, to circle Toronto for 25 days in August 1933.

In a spare yet warm style, Humphreys unfurls the pair's airborne life. She conjures the physical miseries it inflicts on the body--brought on by rain, cramped space, exhaustion--and makes the subtleties of that exhaustion clear as a cloudless sky. But beyond descriptions of physical discomfort is the emotional distress and elation Willa goes through, to which the author gives exquisite nuance. There's loneliness that forces introspection, yet joy washes over Willa, too--joy for a stripped-down life in the sky with Grace, with whom she is falling in love. Over the roar of the wind Grace and Willa develop a poetic sign language. Around this and around the experience of the sky, Humphreys winds Willa's highs and lows.

Following the Moth's flight is 11-year-old Maddy, whose father and Jewish mother work at a fading amusement park on the Toronto Islands. Maddy worships Grace and so naturally spends her August days tracking the circling biplane. Meanwhile her parents worry about work in the face of the depression and watch a growing anti-Semitism invade their home. From the earth and the sky Humphreys shapes a keen story about human frailty and potential, set when aviation was all about glamour, and World War II not so far away. Here, fear spreads and intimacy blooms. --Katherine Alberg

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:58:45 -0400)

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