Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Twenty-One Balloons (1948)

Professor William Waterman Sherman "had been teaching arithmetic at a school for boys in San Francisco for forty years and was thoroughly tired of the idea." (p.5)  He had thoughts of balloon travel where he could escape from human interaction for a whole year.  He had his balloon built and made his escape on August 15, heading west over the Pacific Ocean.  He was picked up in the Atlantic Ocean 40 days later, which cut the around-the-world time in half. (as in Around the World in 80 Days.)

This created a big mystery as W. W. Sherman would not let anyone know of his grand adventures until he had returned to San Francisco.  He even refused to meet the president of the United States, thinking he would even try to get him to tell his tale.  Upon this refusal, the president then offered Prof. Sherman the use of the presidential train so that he could recuperate and travel back to San Francisco more quickly so the tale could be told even sooner.

He is given a hero's welcome in S.F., and taken to the Western American Explorers' Club where he gives a speech, while sitting in a fancy bed, describing his adventures.  He tells of his crash landing on the island of Krakatoa, meeting a number of families there and the society they have created for themselves.  Of the fabulous wealth in diamond mines they discovered, how they have built their government on cuisine and of the many fabulous inventions to make life pleasant on the isolated island. 

Then comes the fateful day that the island exploded.  Luckily, the people of the island had provided for just such an explosion with a floating platform.  They escaped before the island completely blew itself up.

This book has two facts based on historical events.  There really was a balloon craze in the last decades of the 19th century.  And the volcanic island of Krakatoa really did blow up in 1883.  The book was very entertaining.  Here are two quotes, one from the beginning and one from the end, that illustrate the humor in the book.  (Speaking of illustrations, William Pene du Buois also illustrated the book with fun drawings.)

On why balloon is the best way to travel to school, "You get up early in the morning with your schoolbooks, climb into the basket, look in the direction of the schoolhouse, untie the ropes, and fly off.  On your way many delightful things can happen such as:
     a) the wind will be calm and you'll never get to school;
     b) the wind will blow you in the wrong direction and take you fifty miles out into the country away from school, and
     c) you might decide to play hookey, just once, and nobody can bother you in a balloon." (p. 5)

On how he could give such a good speech about his adventures while still in his "sickened condition...'Ha,ha' shouted the Professor, leaping from the bed.  'I feel fine.  I rested up completely on the Presidential train on my five-day trip across the country.  I could have made the talk standing up, but when I saw this beautiful bed on the speaker's platform I thought I'd be a stupid fool if I passed it up.'" (p. 178)

du Bois, William Pene.  The Twenty-One Balloons.  The Viking Press, 1947.

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