My mother was born in the Philippines, and the two of us would go there every so often to check up on her parents. While I was there, I met two of my nephews, neither of whom has taken a plane ride before. Often times, they ask me how it is to soar so high in the sky, and I regale them with tales of flying above the clouds and seeing entire cities through such a tiny window. Of course, I never tell them about the airport itself, as I doubt they want to hear about flight delays, bland food, complaints from other passengers, the hassle of losing one’s baggage, etc.. The point is, few people enjoy the buildup as much as the actual flight. However, that waiting can be well worth it, which brings me to UNCRASHABLE DAKOTA, by Andy Marino.
To give some background, UNCRASHABLE DAKOTA is set in an alternate reality that started in 1862, when Union infantryman Samuel Dakota discovered the biochemical secret to flight after accidentally spilling a drink in Virginia dirt. As a direct result, the Civil War came to a much quicker conclusion, and Dakota Aeronautics was born. The novel begins with ten-year old Hollis Dakota, Samuel’s grandson, observing the creation of his family’s latest airship, which his father not only calls the flagship of the Dakota family, but also “uncrashable.” Hollis’s mother expresses concerns, but Hollis’s father waves them off. After this prologue, it is 1912, and the now 13 year old Hollis Dakota is observing the boarding of the finished ship, the Wendell Dakota, for its maiden voyage. As the novel progresses, we are introduced to Hollis’s step-brother and partner-in-crime, Rob Castor, and his lower-class yet industrious childhood friend, Delia, whose last name is not mentioned.
...as the stakes flew ever higher with the ship, I found myself not only drawn into the action, but also the story itself.
Hollis is experiencing many uncertainties, including his mother’s unstable marriage with Rob’s father, Jefferson Castor, a feeling of self-deterioration after Delia tells him that he’s changed, an inability to fully accept his father’s death --- both as a child and as the next in-line for the helm of Dakota Aeronautics --- and the mystery of his grandfather’s disappearance. These are serious issues, but the way Marino conveys them is, well, unengaging. Each of them has the potential to be taken deeper, but the reader is dragged away from them whenever they arise. Granted, I can understand that an author would let these issues remain unresolved and even not fully explained in order to build intrigue. However, while reading it, I felt as if I was watching clouds go by, acknowledging their existence but never learning anything in-depth about them. The problems felt contrived, added for the sake of false depth, not for the sake of a real story. Despite knowing that I should care, I found it hard to. Even when something inevitably goes wrong, (no spoiler there, it’s practically in the title, and the novel takes place in 1912, the maiden voyage year of another “unsinkable” ship), I felt oddly disconnected as the characters frantically raced to find the source of the problem.
However, as the book’s second act began, the flight became a lot smoother. The characters, who had previously just been potential but not actual people, began to develop personalities beyond witty comments. They became engaging, each with their own unique motivations, thoughts and back stories, and while the writing style does detract slightly from their personalities due to a lack of expressive details, I can definitely say that I felt as if Marino’s characters were real. Furthermore, the issues that had been brushed off earlier came into light, and as each of them was addressed and new ones arose, I felt genuinely concerned. The action now felt real, too. It was difficult to care about action happening to uninteresting characters in the beginning, but as the stakes flew ever higher with the ship, I found myself not only drawn into the action, but also the story itself. As each mystery was unraveled I grew more and more enraptured, and the climax did not disappoint. The book ended with questions unanswered, and I look forward to joining this cast again on their next adventure. While UNCRASHABLE DAKOTA took a while to get off the runway, Andy Marino made sure the flight was one to remember.
Reviewed by Brandon L. (Teen Board Member) on December 17, 2013