When asking the daughter at the dinner table a few questions about No Passengers Beyond this Point by Gennifer Choldenko, she got quite upset with me–believing I was being too hard on this book. I, of course, didn’t think my questions unreasonable. Just the same, I debated whether I would post a review that didn’t gleam (even though I have in the past). Should I just stick to the positive aspects? So I housed my questions/difficulties primarily in the last part of this post, beyond the asterisks. Perhaps I was merely being nit-picky. Perhaps not.
No Passengers Beyond this Point by Gennifer Choldenko
Dial Books for Young Readers, 2011.
241 pages, hardcover.
Natalya (nearly 11) picked this up, downed it, and handed it to me to read the day before it was due back.
“Three siblings – India, Finn, and Mouse – have less than forty-eight hours to pack up all their belongings and fly, without Mom, to their uncle Red’s in Colorado, after they lose their house to foreclosure. But when they land, a mysterious driver meets them at the airport, and he’s never heard of Uncle Red. Like Dorothy in Oz, they find themselves in a place they’ve never heard of, with no idea of how to get home, and time is running out.” ~publisher’s comments.
Mrs. Tompkins has been trying to keep the household afloat, but because of a desperate financial decision that fails and her meager teacher’s salary (no doubt) she can no longer keep her family in their house. Uncle Red, a relative two of the children hardly remember, agrees to take the children in while Mrs. Tompkins stays to finish off the school year, staying with family whose house is already crowded.
While the children sense that things are not going well financially (bare cupboards, a sleepless mother who holds private phone conversations with the bank) they are never directly informed as to how bad it truly is, until one day their mother sits them down and tells that that tomorrow evening they will be on a plane to Denver International Airport. The plan has been in the works of course, only the children are surprised–and unable to truly say goodbye to their home and their friends. [No, this does not reflect well on the mother.]
Wanting the children to stick together, the mother puts Mouse (Geneva) age 6 in India’s care (she’s 14). Doesn’t matter that the two despise each other. The peacekeeping will be left up to the middle-child Finn (Finland) age 12 who is the worrier of the family. Of course, the story wants the children to stick together as well. No Passenger’s Beyond this Point navigates sibling issues with the longing to drive home a point that family is important and each member has value.
The children’s plane hits turbulence and then they land. [Unless you are willing to just go with the book from page one, no matter the event, you will likely guess what actually happened.] The airport is strange, not as expected, but the children go along, questioning and explaining it away. But after a while in the pink taxi with wings, and realizing the “baby-faced” driver had stick-on facial hair and is really 12, they know they are not in Colorado anymore, Toto.
The children are pulled into a highly imaginative adventure. Welcomed into a heavenly magical city as celebrities, they see their dreams fulfilled. But they are soon made aware that they are on the clock and their welcome is short. Their luxurious beginnings soon take on a sinister edge. Each have their own clock and their own decisions to make: stay on as citizens, employed in enviable positions in the city, or risk everything for the challenge of finding the “black box,” their only way home.
India has the hardest decision of the three because she has always felt more isolated as the eldest, the meanest, and the most different (she is explained as being more like her late father). She is suddenly in a place that promises her everything she could desire. India is an incredible source of tension in the story because she has been shown to choose her friends and her own desires over her family and theirs. Her angst is the most dramatic and compelling in the story.
Mouse is the sweetest. A genius 6 year old who perceives the world logically, and magically. She is fun to read, but proves troublesome because no matter how intellectual she is, she’s disconnected from important realities in the world—she’s 6.
Like his siblings, Finn has his own issues. He is too serious, the responsible one, the worrier whose realities conflict with his ambitions. He would be important, highly regarded, be a basketball star, but he is overlooked for being short, unskilled, and quiet (taken for granted).
Each of the three use their strengths to persevere in the challenges to come; which include facing their major weaknesses. This city, which would follow its rules to welcome, comfort, and gently encourage passengers to make the decisions that are best suited them, has decided to be more pro-active in convincing the Tompkin children to stay. The Utopia’s slip begins to show, and while every society admittedly has flaws (as this one readily admits), this Utopia has Florence.
The risk to find the “black box” before their time runs out becomes even more fraught with danger. The pulse of the story will send the reader’s own pulse racing. Will each of the children make good choices? Will anyone be left behind? Will they go for the black box and make it in time? or die trying?
I think No Passenger’s Beyond this Point’s intended audience, middle-grade readers (boy & girl), will really enjoy this novel. It is surreal and thrilling and has the appropriately obnoxious elder sibling. The daughter (nearly 11) recommends the read. However, the ride is a bit too gentle for adults; it will be amusing, but not satisfying.
I had the most difficult time with the ending. The chapters are narrated by one either India, Finn, or Mouse up until the final chapter. The voices are brilliantly captured, consistent and uniquely fashioned to the character slated. The last chapter captures a wealth of personality even though the character is new. But that the character was new was startling. I understand the necessity, but the epilogue-like chapter is…difficult. It tantalizes the reader to match up the events of the strange city with “truer” events, which is great; however, I wonder at its success. Natalya said I should go with it. And I suppose one shouldn’t think too hard on this read. Just say “ah!” and continue on. Which I would have done, except
The woman at the end contemplates survival and suggests that some choose to stay on another plane (heavenly?) rather than return to the earthly one. Those that do survive, having chosen the earthly plane, are here because they are needed or because they just want to return so much more than those who didn’t survive. This is grossly problematic for me, for more than a few reasons, but sticking with the text: The reader has seen the man with the green socks, so close to the “black box” and yet too far, his clock reading 00:00. An image to terrify the reader into understanding that the dwindling time is indeed serious. But he doesn’t make it just the same, even though he really seemed to want to find that box, too. I guess because he wasn’t quite as clever as the children, he didn’t deserve it. Was anyone looking for him, describing his hobbies and his propensity for green socks like Mouse’s propensity for dimes? Then there is the part about Mr. Tompkin. Wouldn’t he choose to stay? Or is this fantastical scenario, which is full of airport jargon, for flight-deaths only?
But it is the children’s story, their world that seems created with them in mind. The door that takes dimes, the German-shepherd mix, etc. And yet it isn’t, because there are other Welcomes, other machinations to suggest that the place isn’t wholly a simultaneously-wrought Tompkin-sibling fantasy. An amusing adventure story that isn’t saying a thing really, just an entertaining novel, L, for middle-graders. I thought you liked surrealist elements/twists? Perhaps I need Bing (Mouse’s non-imaginary imaginary friend) to explain the illogical aspects of it all, because I tend to grasp those and I’m flailing here. I asked Natalya instead. She explains (I’ll summarize), “Maybe because the others died on impact was why they weren’t Welcomed or in the not-an-Airport. Or the other passengers have their own “event.” Since the children are related, they share theirs; and/or since their fate was linked via the seats being fused together they share the same “event.” The guy with the green socks was a familiar passenger, that was why he showed up.”
“Time’s running out” collides with “What will you choose to do with the time you are given?” with “Who will you choose as most important when it comes down to it?” Such questions often hold hands and make for interesting stories, it just comes off awkward and unsatisfying in a turn-back-from-the-light story that isn’t willing to sacrifice one of its protagonists. But I suppose if you are going to go completely unrealistic*, one should embrace it—beginning to end.
I appreciated the creation of this fantastical world-scenario where the children had to confront their problems and make important choices. It is amusing how India is made to empathize with her mother. I suppose it is that I would prefer the story had a different framing device. [May not lend this book to someone related to anyone who died in plane crash.]
*note: I do not believe surrealist naturally assumes the unrealistic.