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Masters of the Air
ISBN: 1592798306

By Deborah Tash
Review by: Diane McDonough

12/01/04

Historical novels often get a "bad rap", dismissed as lightweight reading with predictable plots--it's history, right?-- and little challenge for the reader. The writer of such has a challenge to work within historical precedent as many events bring their own dramas--wars, beheadings, royal successions and such--but examining the affect of dramatic strides in human accomplishment provides the greatest challenge to the writer. Making characters behave in a fashion true to past mores, interesting enough to intrigue the reader and actually tracing the path of an invention truly challenges the writer.

Deborah Tash has taken up the challenge in her novel, Masters of the Air. In telling the story of Michael Ryan, aviation pioneer and California farmer, the strides of the aviation industry form a backdrop as Ryan works his way up from street kid to pilot and war hero to landowner, his rise mimicking the American Dream. He creates problem for himself with both his stubborn reactions to life events and his adamant refusal to reveal his secrets to his family as he ages. It is up to his granddaughter Rachel, a child of the seventies, to resolve the conflicts of his life.

Born the child of a prostitute at the turn of the century, Ryan's life is clouded by his mother's death and his guilt over his role in it. After her death, he is taken in by a man and his wife who introduce him to the burgeoning arena of air flight, and he learns to fly and repair airplanes. He becomes a pilot in World War I, after the war partnering up with chance-met Jake Stimpson to found an early airline. As Ryan searches for his place in society, his prickly temperment along with his unbending and deeply personal moral code, brings him the difficulties and conflicts that will form the basis for the legacy of confusion and pain that finally unravels years later when Rachel challenges his secretiveness.

In some ways, the author moves too fast in introducing her story. The first several chapters entail a crisis a piece in an attempt to set up the more closely examined events later in the novel. It would have been interesting to explore some of these more thoroughly, giving the reader a chance to develop some empathy or understanding for the irascible Ryan.

Tash has created a series of all too believable, not necessarily likeable characters, whose lives are patterned against a backdrop of California as it rushes to grow and develop. She contrasts the highlights of Ryan life, falling in love, making and losing his fortune and his family with the rapid changes in California's economic and physical landscape.

The characters are not likeable or easy; both Ryan and his granddaughter Rachel are unreasonably stubborn, inexplicable rude and unduly defensive. Their story is vibrant, all too human and compelling.

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