Taking Off. I am always interested in NASA, and the Challenger is particularly fascinating to me, but this book was excellent in so many ways beyond that. Definitely one of the best books I've read so far this year.
Some books are like taking a little mental vacation. They are totally different from your own life in almost every conceivable way or they are complete fun fluff and it doesn't take a lot of brain power to read them (and I like both of those kinds of books). For me, those books are like briefly entering a parallel life.
Other books are full of substance, with just enough hooks to my current life that I find myself resurfacing from the story again and again to marvel at the things I want to go learn about afterward or to gape at the beautiful writing. I don't feel like I've left my life behind while I read, but rather that the book has entered and encompassed my life. Does that make any sense?
These are the books that make my head snap up from the book and think "I know exactly that feeling" or "I must read up about that topic as soon as I've finished this book" or "I cannot imagine being able to write that way." Caleb's Crossing was like that for me. All of Gary Schmidt's books do that. And Taking Off did it.
Taking Off takes place in 1986, in Clear Lake, Texas. Annie is a high school senior, consumed with trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life. And, of course, as a senior, she feels like everyone is on her case to make a decision, all with their own ideas about what is her best option.
Her mom, who never went away to college, thinks Annie should go to college. So does her best friend, who thinks they should attend the University of Texas together. Her long-time boyfriend, Mark, plans to stay in Clear Lake and wants her to stay too, and marry him. Annie feels suffocated under all these opinions, unable to figure out what she really wants.
Clear Lake is a major NASA town - many of the parents of her classmates work for NASA in one capacity or another (in fact, there is some divide in her town between the blue collar workers and the highly educated NASA employees which trickles down to the youth as well). Annie's best friend's parents both work for NASA and Annie goes to dinner at their house one night when they have several astronouts over, including Christa McAullife.
Christa has been selected from eleven thousand applicants to be the first teacher in space, going on the soon-to-be-launched Challenger shuttle. Annie, despite her shyness, is captivated by Christa and her enthusiasm for life and willingness to follow her dreams. She also is inspired by how happy Christa seems with her ordinary life too - that if she hadn't gotten the slot on the Challenger, she'd have been just as content teaching high school and being a wife and mother.
Determined to do something of her own volition, rather than what everyone expects from her, Annie convinces her dad to go on a road trip with her to Florida to watch the Challenger's launch. And anyone who knows their history, knows how that launch ends.
Which leaves Annie conflicted all over again. Is this the result of following your dreams? Is it worth the risk?
This book was so rich - my library copy has dozens of little slips of paper to mark pages and passages that I thought were particularly well-written or funny or profound. Annie reminded me of me - someone who lives a lot in their own head, over thinks things, worries about the future, doesn't leap blindly into things.
And the historical setting is really well done - when the time period is important to the story, but also quite recent, an author can't be heavy-handed, but shouldn't completely skip any scene setting either. I thought Jenny Moss walked that tight-rope well. There was enough to remind me it was taking place in the eighties, but not so much that I wanted to yell, "I GET IT! It's the eighties!"
I think also that sometimes historical fiction can concentrate too much on the historical side of things, with too little character development or other dimensions to the story, with the main character only existing to view the historical events the author wants to write about. Taking Off wasn't like that at all. There is so much more than just life-angst or the Challenger's explosion. There is family dynamics and romance and poetry and art, and it all blends together in a very seamless way.
Plus, it's very clean, which I always appreciate. It's not one you'd have to worry about recommending (which, you know, I always do - worry, that is).
I'd forgotten that Jenny Moss worked as an engineer at NASA before she became an author - reading the few pages about her experiences there, working with some of the Challenger's crew, really added depth to the story for me.
Also, of note, this is the first book from which Ella tore a page. But I did such a bang-up job retaping it that when I flipped through it just now, I couldn't find the page I repaired. That librarian degree is really adding value to my everyday life.
Copy borrowed from my local library (after I requested that they buy it)