We’ll Fly Away:
Reviewed by Denise Frame Harlan
As a young teenager, I held my scars close to me. I woke in the night remembering the ragged bullet hole in the chest of the monogrammed shirt that I’d given to the German soldier hiding in an outbuilding. I felt the straw stiffness of hair bleached too white in an effort to disguise me when I accidentally shot someone in a gang fight. I learned “nothing gold can stay” from Ponyboy before I learned it from Robert Frost. I carried flowers for Algernon and helped the rats of NIMH make their break with Mrs. Frisby. I kythed with Meg and Ananda as Charles Wallace flew from when to when, between runs with Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys and the Alfred Hitchcock mystery series for teens. I knew the world was dangerous.
In truth my family didn’t own guns and Farmland, Indiana only boasted a gang insofar as my older brother’s friends roamed wild on bikes, looking for mischief and causing mischief. (I will never know half of their shenanigans—and the words ‘mischief’ and ‘shenanigans’ still feel like formal and stiff words.) I lived with both parents on Plum Street for most of my youth and I would not have described myself as a part of any great struggle. I just knew I would get out of the vortex of factory work and chain-smoking, in time, working bit by bit. Every week I returned to the storefront library to press the limits of the due date cards, doing my own time-travelling. Of course there were real scars from my own growing up, even in an idyllic town, and by the time I graduated from high school I would feel my own family’s desperation and brokenness, but by that time, I found solace comparing notes on adulthood with the characters in my reading—and I suspect you did, too.
Nearly every teen in my town planned to leave, before they could be sucked into the invisible sinkhole of poverty and pettiness. Some returned later with a vision for a less dusty Farmland, and they brought new life when they returned, but many came home because they failed at college or jobs or addictions, or the world failed them.
We’ll Fly Away, the latest novel by Bryan Bliss, captures the gravity of such a small town. Two best friends, Luke and Toby have been restoring a crashed plane fuselage as their hideout in the woods, long past the age when other teens have moved on to real-life pursuits. They are old enough to know the plane is a fantasy, but desperate enough to cling to its rusted hull. Though nothing is safe, the mere idea of leaving becomes their safe space. Like their classmates, the young men dream of cars, girls, and money, but unlike their some of their classmates, Luke and Toby need to fly from Hickory, North Carolina to free themselves from the sordid everyday lives of miserable parents who hold the keys and make the choices. Toby’s father circles his life around an old biker bar, conspiring with ex-cons and belting his son when he feels like it’s his fatherly duty. Luke’s mother needs her teenage son to be the stable adult for his twin younger brothers—to find food even if there is no money. By the time we meet these two young men, they have already forged the deep bonds of friends who protect one another and care for the younger boys, as each helps to deflect the demands of parents who do not parent.
Both Toby and Luke frame their lives around the demands of the senior year of high school and Luke’s trajectory as a star wrestler. Between Luke’s workout schedule and his twin brothers’ after school care, the young men have little time for the normal activities of teenagers, but they plan ahead to take the young brothers and find a place to live near the college that is recruiting Luke. In their plan, they leave the failed parents behind.
And yet the main story of this novel crackles with life, the smart-ass back-and-forth of teenage boys who just might get out. Paced like a crime heist, the dialogue snaps and bites with the gallows humor and sly commentary of the barest sliver of hope.
By the time we meet these two young men, we also know Luke is reliving the story of their friendship in a series of letters from a prison cell on death row, because something has gone horribly wrong with their plan.
It strikes me, as I’m reading and re-reading We’ll Fly Away, that I never thought much about the struggles of the young men in my hometown, and the edge of violence, because I was focused on my own intellect and my budding faith to get me out. Something about my faith made me feel invincible about the violence, but there were close calls—a bully not following through on a punch or a threat—and my escape had nothing to do with magical protections. People believed my older brother would stand up for me: I had no reason to believe that, myself.
I followed the wrestling team at my high school because the wrestlers seemed more down-to-earth than the star basketball players, so the rhythm of wrestling matches feels real to me in this book, but I’ve never known the life of a dedicated athlete like Luke. His discipline keeps him steady in an unsteady world. With his bodily dedication, Luke tamps down a simmering rage that is no less aflame than Toby’s, but Luke has children to care for, and a scholarship waiting for him in Iowa.
Within the first few pages of Bliss’s novel, I fall madly in love with both of these young men, and I find myself keenly aware of all the details that feel right when it comes to growing up poor, especially the dynamics of a family in which one teenager is expected to be the emotional grownup. A young man like Luke will feel oddly blessed that he is not Toby: he sees that his life could be so much worse. In my own experience, my best friend from high school was the friend more like Toby—the friend who feared for her own life in the face of a tormenting grandparent who paid the bills. We lived four miles apart, and we’d race our bikes to the midpoint, then ride back to my house. By comparison, my life was a dream. My father once said he wouldn’t leave a dog in the care of my friends’ grandfather. Perhaps if I’d been a boy, I’d have developed a skill set like Luke and Toby share, as they protect one another, but as a young woman, I felt powerless against the threats to my friend, and she drifted, more capable of protecting herself by hitchhiking west than by sleeping in her own home.
I was lucky, in many ways—my parents offered a stable home until they divorced before my junior year of high school, after 22 years of marriage. I had a rock-solid support network in my small-town, including the church youth group I’d joined the year before. Everyone was looking out for me, in some ways, while my parents argued over whose turn it was to pick me up after school. Their split broke so many things, but I had a home and I felt safe in it. My brothers scattered. They would walk into our childhood home and raid the refrigerator or grab a change of clothes —I could never find them, never figure out where to leave them a message. They let me know they didn’t need me, or anyone for that matter. My mother’s dating life and subsequent remarriage felt much like Luke’s mother’s—oppressively awkward and inescapable. Like Luke, I just wondered why adults could not keep their intimate lives to themselves. I was also deeply fortunate to be born bright and capable: I could leave for college, if I bided my time. I felt just that level of Luke’s rage, without the possibility of punching or killing my way out.
Everyone in my own story outlived those years. My brothers are well. My parents remarried well, and they lived happily for many years, in a thriving Farmland, Indiana. They are both gone, now. My best friend is a grandmother caring for her own grandchildren about 20 miles from her childhood home. She sends me photos of the roller rink and her painting process. When I left that part of Indiana, I knew I would never live there again. Some people do get out—but that’s a lucky break.
Not every author can get that edge of despair right. Bliss understands his characters as deep and complex people who only know what happens next by doing it. The vividly detailed settings allow me to see the story, from the boy’s homes to the bar, to the school hallways, to the airplane hideout in the woods, to the basketball court outside of death row. The young men talk in just the smart-ass ways that boys learn from banking time together, year after year. The coming-of-age story convinces the reader of the ways the world can easily be upset for those who are making plans. Its tight time frame and well-crafted characters would be perfect for film, and I hope the right movie producer finds this story.
The airplane in the woods feels like my own scar, now—a broken hope embodied. In my mind, Bliss’s novel belongs in that pantheon of realistic young adult fiction. It feels perfectly crafted. For all of its sorrow, We’ll Fly Away is a joy of a read—the joy of youth, the joy of hope, and joy that even after terrible mistakes, as the subtitle says, none of us are ever finished.
Denise Frame Harlan lives with her husband and two children on the windy edge of The Great Marsh in Ipswich, Massachusetts. She is currently writing about work, about cooking, about good books, and about the tidal river just beyond her writing desk.