Girl on a Plane, by Miriam Moss (HMH Books for Young Readers, September 13, 2016), is a gripping, fictionalized account of the author's own experience of being on board a hijacked plane in 1970. It's a compelling, thought-provoking, page-turner.
The time has come for Anna to leave her family in Bahrain to return to her English boarding school, and though she's used to the constant uprooting that comes with life in a military family, she's not used to the sadness of leaving her family. But there's no choice--she must get on the plane that will take her away from them.
But then her plane is hijacked by Palestinian guerrillas, and is forced to land in the desert of Jordan. There it sits, with its engines shut down, fiercely hot in the day, and cold at night, with inadequate supplies of food and water, and mounting (as it were) sanitation issues. And of course, with the imminent threat of death. Any wrong move could trigger the hijackers to kill. Any wrong step in the negotiations outside could trigger the explosives that have been rigged up to the plane.
Anna and her seatmates, boys also on their way back to school in England, cope as best they can, simply getting through each tedious hour, and then each tedious day as their ordeal continues. The tension of the story bleeds through into the pages, and though its not a page turner in the "what will happen next" sense, it is utterly riveting.
Anna comes through vividly as a character, though the supporting cast less so. There is less human drama than one might expect; everyone, for the most part, simply endures as best they can, and it is not quite believable. This faint lack of interesting human story was disappointing, although it is Anna's story, and so stays tighltly focused on her experiences and perceptions. Moss makes an effort to add nuance to her hijackers; though some have lost all humanity, one young man, who Anna talks with on a few occasions, come across as not entirely unsympathetic--he saw his own parents killed during the occupation of Palestine. Though Anna can't forgive the fact that he now has the power to kill her in turn, she can't quite hate him unequivocally. As Miriam Moss says in an author's note (which you can read on Amazon):
"I have tried to write a nonjudgmental account of events, to show that the world is not black-anwhite, but an infinitely richer and more complex gray. I have tried to understand what drives desperate people to do desperate things, and to understand the complexities of the Middle East a little better. Those who hijacked me were homeless and disenfranchised. I hope this book might help those of us who have so much understand a little better those who have so little."
Anna's four day ordeal is engrossing, and though it's hard for those of us who were alive back then to think of stories set in the 1970s as "historical fiction," this will be an educating eye-opener to kids today, who have grown up with the even scarier terrorism fueled by religious fanaticism that haunts us today.
Not one to read on a long airplane trip, but a good one to read on other, less vulnerable forms of transportation. I read it in a single sitting on a ferry boat, and though I did speculate about what would happen if our boat were hijacked, a boat is a heck of a lot less hellish than a plane. Especially a plane heating up in the desert when smoking on planes was still standard practice (which is perhaps what truly makes this historical fiction in a visceral way. Everyone lights up immediately.).
For fans of teens in peril, this is a must read. It's also good for those of us who like survival stories of people trapped with food running out etc., with interesting details like going through the food packets not eaten during the in-flight snack service pre-hijacking, and the hostages being taken to their luggage, and having to decide what few things to take from it.
The one thing I would have liked more of would have been a few pages on the actual history of the hijacking. Anna's plane was one of three out there in the desert--what happened to the other two? Did the British government give in to the hijackers demands? I have read that Jewish passengers were segregated from the others, and kept hostage for weeks longer, but the book doesn't mention this. And a bit of historical background on just what was going on in the Near East in 1970 would have added value.
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher