So, I was pretty much right. Skies ended almost exactly as I though it would.
One of the areas of surprise was the American public’s declining interest and concern with airplane hijackings in the years following Roger’s and Cathy’s escape. Koerner offers some credible reasons for this, but part of me still can’t believe that this turbulent period in commercial airline history has been all but forgotten, even by the people who would have been old enough to remember it clearly.
Another area of surprise was the way in which Koerner handled the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and the hijackings that led to it. He does it so subtly that if you blink, you might miss it. As a writer, I appreciated this literary sleight of hand, but as a reader, I found myself wanting more, not least because of how drastically commercial air travel changed after 9/11.
As for Skies’ two protagonists…
Roger continued to struggle in exactly the ways you would expect for a working-class, poorly educated, African-American Vietnam vet: entanglements with the law, substance abuse, poverty, poor physical and mental health, etc.* I might have hoped for something different for him, something better, but Koerner’s story is a work of non-fiction, after all.
Cathy, on the other hand… I will confess that, somewhere in the middle of my reading, I gave into the temptation to flip to the back of the book, just to get a glimpse of how this story was going to end. I found myself at the Acknowledgements page. As I skimmed the names of all the people who helped Koerner to write this book, I found it curious that Cathy Kerkow was not one of them. I realized that there could have been several logical reasons for this (the most obvious one to me being that she had declined to be interviewed, preferring not to delve into this particular chapter in her past), but it did make me wonder how, then, Koerner was able to describe Cathy’s motives, emotions, and dispositions in such detail. Relying on second-hand information from Roger and the others who knew her well didn’t seem like it would have given Koerner enough material to be so sure of who she was. He still would have had to “fill in the blanks”, as it were, to draw her as richly and as sympathetically as he did Roger. Now that I’ve completed the book, I can see why Koerner’s handling of Cathy drove Tricia so nuts that she started talking to herself.
The processes of racialization and “gendering” in our society, and the hierarchies of privilege that they create, are all over this book. So is the specific impact of those hierarchies on the relationship between Roger and Cathy. As Tricia wrote:
But isn’t that just the unfair truth—part of being a Cathy Kerkow [a White woman] is that you get to move around in ways that Holder [a Black man] doesn’t?
Yes, but it’s not just her […] It’s the whole eat-pray-love of it. It’s that white woman who became a Maasai Warrior and then wrote a book called Warrior Princess! IT’S MILEY CYRUS TWERKING!!!!
(I’d also add that, based on the previews I’ve seen for Season Four of Downton Abbey, it’s also Lady Rose’s apparent penchant for “slumming it” in the dance halls and jazz clubs of London. But, I digress…)
Koerner doesn’t really address this reality, at least, not with the depth that Tricia and I would have liked him to. It seems as though he was just as enamoured by the “feminine wiles” he described Cathy using to get what she wanted, and she wasn’t even there. As Black women, as writers, and as race and gender scholars, that just pissed us off, even though we fully understood how and why it could happen to a writer as thoughtful and sensitive as Koerner. (Talk about unfair truths…) Further, as a Canadian, I was annoyed by Koerner’s final, loving, pages about Cathy, because I felt he was valorizing the kind of self-serving, hyper-individualistic behaviour that so many people from other countries “hate” about Americans.
Still, I loved this book. Loved it. So much so, that I prolonged finishing it for as much as I could, and I was genuinely sad when it was over. This is an incredibly well-researched book by a man who clearly loves to tell stories. He probably lives the stories as he writes them, which is why The Skies Belong to Us is so engaging. Many thanks to my dear friend for suggesting we embark on this literary journey together, and many, many thanks to Brendan Koerner for sharing his love for this particular story with the world.
* Yes I know there were exceptions, Tricia’s father being one of them but, for the most part, the United States government did not provide Vietnam veterans with the support they needed to reintegrate and successfully readjust to civilian life.