A tense, gripping and heart-rending must-read for teens and adults alike. Just make sure you have a box of tissues to hand!
Longlisted for the Branford Boase Award 2016
It’s September 1970 and 15 year old Anna is on her way back to boarding school in England. Friends of her family joke about the recent hijackings but Anna is far more concerned about leaving her home in Bahrain and their mongrel dog, Woofa. These worries are, however, wiped from her mind when her plane is hijacked by Palestinian guerrillas and diverted to a disused airstrip in the Jordanian desert. Here they are forced to wait for days with almost no food and very little water while their captors issue their demands to the British government. If these demands are not met within three days, they will blow up the plane killing all the hostages.
Better known for her picture books, Miriam Moss’ debut young adult novel is one of the best I’ve read. Based on the author’s own experience of being hijacked in 1970, this is a tense and gripping story that you will read with tears in your eyes.
In her postscript, Miriam is clear that – although grounded in the experience she had aged 15 – this story is a work of fiction. She is at pains to explain that all the characters are fictional and any inadvertent similarities to real passengers on the plane are entirely coincidental. This is, however, hard to remember given every single character in the book is totally three dimensional and utterly believable. We identify with Anna from the start when, as a typical teen, she puts off packing her case. Then, as events unfold, we are right there with her almost feeling her thirst, her hunger, and her desperate longing for her family (particularly her mother Marni).
It would take too long to summarise the outstanding characterisation of the other hostages and the plane crew – although fellow teen, David, and the Scottish navigator, Jim, remain my personal favourites. These characters may not be based on real people but I strongly suspect that their various behavioural quirks are drawn from the real passengers. Either that or the author has spent a lot of time more recently researching how people react under pressure.
Given the emotional punch of almost every page, I particularly enjoyed reading the scenes with the young unaccompanied boy, Tim, who is almost too young to take in the severity of their situation. His concern for his pet terrapin, Fred, provides necessary light relief and I couldn’t help but smile when reading Tim’s draft telegram to British Prime Minister Ted Heath: PLEASE SAVE US. I’M HUNGRY AND SO IS FRED MY TERRAPIN. TIM X X X
While the author admits that she has altered some of the details for dramatic purposes (which I suspect includes the escape and search for Fred the terrapin) many of the events in the story are drawn from reality. I found myself brimming with anger as I read the scenes with the world media and biting my nails when Anna and the other women are separated from the male passengers on a rare visit outside the plane. (Fortunately the worst that happens is they are forced to pose for a photograph with the guerrillas).
The portrayal of the guerrillas is remarkably sympathetic given the ordeal Miriam must have suffered as a hostage. Without either exposition or apparent resentment, she is able to explain the complex Israel-Palestine issue and give the reader an insight into the hijackers’ motivation. As characters the Palestinians are equally three dimensional.
I would, perhaps, have liked a tiny bit more to help me understand the sudden, and unexpected, agreement to release the hostages. However, given that this is Anna’s story it’s probably right that we remain, as she is, slightly bemused by the abrupt change in events.
I was glad that the story didn’t end here and that I was able to stay with Anna as she leaves and starts to adjust to a world outside the confines of the plane. I also found the epilogue in which Miriam describes how she returned many years later to the location both brave and incredibly moving.
Overall this is a tense, gripping and heart-rending must-read for teens and adults alike. Just make sure you have a box of tissues to hand!
It is difficult to think of a comparable book to recommend if you enjoyed this. However, you might want to consider My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher or Blood Family by Anne Fine.
Date: September 2015
Publisher: Andersen Press
Author: Miriam Moss
Review first published on The Bookbag