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Leaving Earth

by Helen Humphreys

The suspect beginning of Leaving Earth gives the impression the author is going to attempt a mytho-poetic version of Toronto in the 1930s – shades of Michael Ondaatje, except noticeably lacking his magical command of language. Fortunately these metaphor-heavy vignettes are quickly dropped in favour of a more obtainable direct prose style. By mid-book, the narrative is flying along with Humphrey’s pleasing stock characters and a string of engrossing events.

The backdrop for Humphreys’ story is Toronto in the summer of 1933, a city gone stunt-mad in the clutches of the Depression. The desperate economic climate is more often conveyed by using the researched statistics that creep into the text than by developing it through the story itself (as Tillie Olsen does so effectively in Yonnondio, for example). But the Depression turns out to be incidental, except perhaps, for Humphreys’ well-drawn portrayal of violent anti-Semitism in Toronto. The true centre of the story is a Moth biplane and its fabulous flyer, Air Ace Grace O’Gorman. To tell her story, it must be the 1930s, and to help her out, the other characters have to exist.

O’Gorman is intent on breaking her husband’s time-in-air record. To do this, she enlists said husband (who is vindictively jealous of his wife’s fame as a pilot), and Willa Briggs, a young flight instructor with an oppressive mother and a passion for boxing, who will co-pilot. Once O’Gorman and Briggs are airborne, Leaving Earth is, too. Humphreys creates great suspense, realism, and emotion from the struggle these two women have circling Toronto Island day after day.

To ground the story (quite literally), a secondary plot involving the 12-year-old O’Gorman fanatic Maddy and her quirky amusement-park family is nicely developed, even if sugar-dipped in the end. Maddy and Willa, and their twin passions for Grace O’Gorman, provide alternating third-person points of view – from above and below. O’Gorman herself remains an enigma, to them and to the reader. Yet because everything must be read into her personality – instead of the partial characterization even main characters like Maddy and Willa receive – she becomes virtual history, the figure who will stick most in the minds of many readers.

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.