Sunday, October 04, 2009

Above the Fray

Above the Fray: A Novel of the Union Balloon Corps, Part One
by Kris Jackson

(CraigsPress / 1-607-48002-6 / 978-1-607-48002-0 / May 2009 / 304 pages / $19.95 / Kindle $3.99)

Reviewed by Malcolm R. Campbell for PODBRAM

Thaddeus Lowe said, “The sun’ll not rise today, Nathaniel. You and I shall have to rise to meet it.”

And so it is that a fifteen-year-old telegraph operator from Richmond inadvertently helps Professor Lowe direct a Federal artillery barrage by transmitting air-to-ground telegraph messages about the range and direction of fire. Lowe is pleased with the results, for the test further demonstrates the viability of aerial reconnaissance in the Civil War. Nathaniel Curry is conflicted when he realizes the target wasn’t a land formation but a secessionist battery at Falls Church, Virginia.

Kris Jackson’s protagonist in Above the Fray is in Washington, D.C., to help with the telegraph equipment while fellow operator Charlie Spence makes the ascent with Lowe. At the last minute, Charlie backs out, telling Lowe, “I’ll not go up in that thing again. I was scared to death the last time.” Charlie refused to reconsider even after Lowe tells him the test depends on him. Nathaniel suddenly blurts out, “I’ll do it.” Destiny, it seems, has called him into the war against the Confederacy— his family, his friends, his country.

In July 1861, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Thaddeus Lowe Chief Aeronaut of the Union Army Balloon Corps. Kris Jackson’s meticulously researched and well written novel brings to life a little-known civilian contract organization that supported Federal troops during the Civil War with real-time information and maps based on observations made from hydrogen balloons.

Part I of Above the Fray follows the battles of the Peninsula Campaign while Lowe’s Balloon Corps is assigned to General George McClellan. Mainstream readers will enjoy a dramatic story, while civil war enthusiasts will also appreciate Jackson’s attention to battlefield detail, balloon handling and equipment, and the highly credible interactions between the novel’s fictional characters with historical figures.

Service in the Balloon Corps represents a rite of passage for Nathaniel. Ballooning not only widens the physical horizons of his world, but plunges him into a role that exposes him to the ugliness of war and the condemnation of his brother who supports the South. Nathaniel’s sweetheart’s family is also fighting for the Confederacy, but she cautiously suggests that the Union cause might also be just if it brings an end to the immoral institution of slavery. Jackson has created a likeable character who questions why he is doing what he’s doing while learning to rely on spunk and grit to survive the war on a diverse team of aeronauts. For Nathaniel Curry, being above the fray does not mean being out of danger.
In addition to Lowe, the novel includes aeronauts John Wise and John LaMountain as well as the visiting Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. Since most readers aren’t familiar with these individuals, the novel would be helped by an introduction or an author’s note that separated fictional characters from the obscure historical figures. The count’s presence foreshadows future developments in aviation while LaMountain’s presence brings another fine element of tension into the novel by illustrating differences between aeronauts. LaMountain was critical of Lowe’s reliance on tethered (secured to the ground with ropes) flight; Lowe thought LaMountain’s untethered flight made communication with the ground more difficult while adding control problems and other risks.
POD Book Reviews and More was sent only Part I of Above the Fray for this review. We don’t know why Above the Fray was split into two volumes or why those volumes are being offered as standalone books rather than a boxed set. Part I ends with a cliffhanger soon after the September 1862 Battle of Antietam. History tells us that Lowe resigned from the Balloon Corps in May 1963 due to continued pay and logistics disputes with the army. With Lowe’s absence, the corps folded up by August. This review, then, is provisional since we only considered half of the novel. If Part II measures up to the standards of Part I, then Kris Jackson has created a wonderful and informative story about a young protagonist who comes of age under fire at the same time the military’s use of balloons comes of age under fire.

See Also: Above the Fray, Part Two in Amazon Kindle
Kris Jackson's Authors Den Page
Kris Jackson Design
The March of Books Review
The Goodreads Review
The Amazon UK Review
The PODBRAM Review of Above the Fray, Part Two

1 comment:

Malcolm R. Campbell said...

This past weekend, I went up in the helium balloon at the Connor Prairie Interactive History park near Indianapolis. The experience was very much like Jackson describes in his book--except that were were only at 350 feet and nobody was firing on us.