Each year, there’s about a dozen or so works of nonfiction that create an amazing amount of hype. These are the kind of books that get rave reviews and make notable year-end lists. Based on my experience, when a book generates a ton of positive buzz and propels its author on that much sought-after high-profile interview circuit, it’s usually worth reading. But no matter how popular and praised a newly published book might get, I frequently find myself skeptically wondering just how good it is. Of course, understanding that everyone’s tastes are different, even though a particular book might be loved by millions, who’s to say I’ll still enjoy it? (As an example, I point to Katherine Boo’s 2012 book Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity I found her writing a bit herky-jerky at times and the book’s pace not entirely to my liking. Obviously, I had no idea what I was talking about because her book went on to win every award on the planet and sold like hotcakes.) Therefore, I learned a long time ago that if I wanted to know just how good a book is I had to read it myself.
Back in 2013, Brendan I. Koerner’s The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking was one of those much talked about books. Not only was it featured on CNN and NPR, my local alternative newsweekly Willamette Week even did a feature on it. Viewers of Book TV were able to catch the book’s author delivering a promotional lecture. And lastly, esteemed book blogger Kim of Sophisticated Dorkiness added it to her stack of that summer’s reading. The Skies Belong to Us was shaping up to be one popular book.
Like many books that become popular and then fade into the background as they’re replaced by the next big literary thing, I eventually forgot about The Skies Belong to Us. But of course once a book’s popularity cools off, it’s easier to find an available copy at the public library. So last weekend, during one of my regular trips to the public library I spotted a copy of The Skies Belong to Us. Thinking it would be a perfect opportunity to discover if Koerner’s 2013 book was worthy of all the high praise it elicited I eagerly grabbed it.
The Skies Belong to Us, as its subtitle declares, vividly recounts what could be called America’s golden age of hijacking, which lasted from about 1968 to 1973. Long before No Fly Lists, walk-through body scanners and TSA pat-downs, desperate individuals were hijacking commercials airliners at a furious pace. Although in today’s age we take for granted such simple security measures like pre-flight metal detectors and baggage X-rays. However, 40 years ago these, at least in the beginning of this early war on terror, were not utilized. (Their implementation was resisted strongly by both the airlines and the federal government as being too expensive to implement and too inconveniencing for air travelers.) Without these safeguards in place, political extremists of varying agendas, the psychologically unbalanced and even a few daring con men (let’s just say D.B. Cooper wasn’t the only one to parachute out of a jet with big wad of extorted cash) were hijacking planes one after another. Sometimes several jets would get hijacked in one week. On at least one occasion, two planes were hijacked in a single day.
While there’s many fascinating hijackers from this now largely forgotten era of modern American history, Koerner wisely elected to focus on the story of Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow, a modern-day interracial Bonnie and Clyde who successfully hijacked an American airliner to Algiers. After being granted sanctuary by Algeria’s left-leaning authoritarian government, the couple joined a small expat community of African-American radicals. After growing tired of life under Algerian rule Holder and Kerkow fled to Paris. There in Paris, Kerkow, a former back-country girl from Coos Bay, Oregon became fluent in French and quickly remade herself into a stylish and sophisticated woman. Holder on the other hand, suffering from both a severe anxiety disorder and PTSD stemming from his multiple combat tours in Vietnam, drifted aimlessly.
The is an excellent book. I found it darn near impossible to put down. Not once while quickly burning through The Skies Belong to Us did I tire of it or encounter a dry stretch in the narrative. Easily, this is one of the most entertaining books I’ve read this year. (It also makes for fantastic follow-up reading to Andreas Killen’s 1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol, and the Birth of Post-Sixties America.) I Highly recommended this terrific piece of narrative nonfiction.