Arctic Air

The Map of My Dead Pilots reads in two ways – as an account of a systematic, scholarly study of the history of plane crashes in Alaska, and as an oral history of the kind of people who are likely to be flying those very planes. As the title implies, some of these figures are mere names in the newspaper archives, and pins stuck in charts. Others are people that Colleen Mondor knew personally, from her days as a dispatcher at a weird little airline in the middle of nowhere.

The two accounts advance on each other – a dispassionate enquiry into aviation history, and a melancholy memoir of life among the ice pilots. Mondor artfully constructs snapshots of a snowbound world where men treat dogs like machines and machines like spouses; where weather is more than just scenery; where everyone has come north with a story they don’t want to tell. She wrestles with what it is to have an authorial mind in a world of harsh truths, as she tries to reconcile academic rigour with narrative romance. There are tantalising snapshots here, from the scarred girl who must relive the moments of her long-ago accident in the eyes of everyone who sees her face, to the nuns who refuse to give up their seats for a hospital-bound teenager. The result is gripping, as a fledgling author finds her style and suddenly takes wing. With a start, Mondor realises what she is really writing about, and lets the reader find out along with her.

Mondor’s pilots gripe that they might as well be bus drivers on the Moon, as if that is not an incredible idea in itself. The US Mail has to get through, not because some Inuit trapper is waiting for a postcard from Puerto Rico, but because the plane that is being vastly overpaid to carry the postcard will now also have hold space for medicine, food and supplies. But this is the land of Mondor, where the shadows lie, as the author sits forlorn amid pieces of broken lives, and carefully builds something beautiful with the fragments. Like an antique, graceful plane thunking onto the landing strip with bingo fuel and a hold full of howling dogs, The Map of My Dead Pilots touches down just in time. Any longer, and this lovely little book would have broken its spell.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy.