Home > Books > Flying in the Heart of the Lafayette Escadrille by James Van Pelt

Flying in the Heart of the Lafayette Escadrille by James Van Pelt

Flying in the Heart of the Lafayette Escadrille by James Van Pelt

Collections often give us an insight into the central preoccupations of the authors and Flying in the Heart of the Lafayette Escadrille by James Van Pelt (Fairwood Press, 2012) is no exception. We’re dealing with people who are for one reason or another, uncertain of themselves and how to deal with that sense of inadequacy. It may be sexual in that a man may not truly understand mating rituals or a woman may be caught up in an eternal childhood innocence and find the practicality of sex rather distasteful. It may be an adult who was abused by his father and is now uncertain how he should relate to his own son. Or a small boy who, when confronted by the unbelievable, can do no more than tell the truth as he understands it and leave it to more experienced adults to decide how to react. A teacher who’s disillusioned with his job and doesn’t know whether to quit, an alien who finds it more comfortable to spend time as a human. The list goes on, and it’s an interesting and sometimes thought-provoking group of people to think about.

“Flying in the Heart of the Lafayette Escadrille” suggests that the art of breaking the ice in a singles bar matches the techniques sometimes adopted by WWI pilots. Many would come out of the sun to take an enemy by surprise. The kill was all that mattered. Others would consider that unsporting and would issue a challenge before engaging in combat. But there were always those odd days when two enemy pilots might see each other and decide not to fight. “Father’s Dragon” is one of these interior monologues in which a man who grew up without the benefit of a father’s love considers how he should relate to his own son. Or he could always run away. “Just Before Recess” is a slight joke while, “O Tannenbaum”, albeit only marginally longer, contrives to avoid being overly sentimental with a simple message about the pervasiveness of human kindness and the importance of friendship. “Night Sweats” is a deeply romantic but elegant conflation of a supernatural ghost story and the science fiction possibility of multiple parallel universes which may occasionally bleed into each other. “Teaching” is a message story about the depersonalisation of the profession and the alienation of those on both sides of the learning process.

James Van Pelt: a talented  writer

James Van Pelt: a talented writer

“Working the Moon Circuit” is an interesting take on identity and whether we would become or less as an individual if we could enter a group consciousness. In a way it also captures the essential uncertainty of love. Shut off in our own bodies, how do we get to know the other person and build up enough trust to commit ourselves to a longer term relationship? “Plant Life” is a delightfully macabre way of continuing the examination of how people make and then maintain their relationships. Sometimes, even something destructive is better than nothing when you’re full of self-loathing. “That He Might Yet Find the Unknown” is a wonderful story. It matches an attack on gene technology corporations that might claim ownership of a human being if he had been tweaked to have certain characteristics, against the simple love of a runner to train for and run marathons. “Floaters” is one of these time paradox stories that isn’t, i.e. determinism isn’t always what it seems. There can be cause for hope. “The Road’s End” is also a kind of paradox because, in a sense, it’s merely where we choose to stop walking or not, as the case may be. “One in a Thousand” is also about moving forward. Almost all will fall but there’s always one who manages to keep going. Except, of course, the temptation to stop always remains. If it was in the “Rock House”, this might promise immortality but who can say whether such a state is desirable. The uncertainty might undermine the supposed value of the rewards. “Mrs Hatcher’s Evaluation” wonders how you might teach the Long March or any other historical event. A good teacher can make it feel as if you’ve actually been there when it all happened.

“Far From the Emerald Isle” is a gentle fusion between science fiction and fantasy as a generation ship gets help from an unexpected source when the crew is asleep and there’s an emergency. Similarly, “Howl Above the Din” wonders whether committed scientists could teach the remnants of the wolf population how to survive when humans continue to encroach on their territory. This might involve transmitting the behaviour of other animals that have managed to survive in close proximity to men, like foxes or coyotes for example. “No Small Change” is also about people learning new skills. In this case young girls realise their potential as heart-breakers. “The Saint From Abdijan” is a slightly supernatural story about the blood diamond trade as a do-gooder gets into the thick of the action to save the “natives” from exploitation. “Ark Ascension” is somewhat sentimental but does offer hope for humanity after a mutagen skews reproduction in humans and animals alike. “Working Pushout” is a slightly strange story about how dreams may affect people while performing even the most mundane of jobs. “Notes From the Field” takes us back to the study of mating rituals although, this time, it’s more a study in loneliness as our anthropologists are trapped in their roles. “Classroom of the Living Dead” is a teacher’s eye view of what it feels like to stand in front of some classes of students and, finally, “Savanah is Six” is a story of tragic loss and the guilt associated with it. Sometimes, you can’t escape even though you know you should.

Taking Flying in the Heart of the Lafayette Escadrille as a whole, you can’t help but admire the craftsmanship of this author. There are some truly excellent individual stories here. But when you step back, there’s a sense he just fails to make the top grade as a short story writer. There are times when the ideas are good but the execution is fractionally superficial. I know I’m being overly critical but I was not quite as excited by this collection as I was by his previous efforts.

For a review of another collection by James Van Pelt, see The Radio Magician and Other Stories.

  1. March 9, 2013 at 3:19 am

    Hi, David. Thank you for the thoughtful review. I appreciate your analysis (and the fact you like short stories!).

    • March 9, 2013 at 3:32 am

      Hi Jim

      I love short stories and do my best to review as many anthologies and collections as I can in the midst of the tsunami of novels. I hope you notice the absence of the, “A copy of this book. . .” There’s a hard core of authors I pay to read and you are one of them. From this you will understand that, even though I may have slight reservations about this collection, you are still one of my top fifty favourite authors.


      • March 9, 2013 at 3:49 am

        Hi, David. If you send me your address to Vvanp (at) aol.com, I’ll send you copies of the other two collections.

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