At some point last spring, I had one of those “Ah ha!” moments in which I realized that I’ve always been who I am. No, hallucinogens were not involved in this realization. Rather, I stumbled upon an old photo of me as a kid, nose in a book with thick glasses and a kitty curled up on my lap, and realized that I’m exactly the same as I was when I was eight years old, reading William Pene du Bois’ masterful young adult novel The 21 Balloons.
“That’s the peculiar thing about nature,” explained Mr. F., “it guards its rarest treasures with greatest care. Every year on other Pacific islands hundreds of natives lose their lives trying to bring up pearls from the floor of the sea. Man pays nature dearly for pearls.” (source)
Aside from the hairstyle, that picture could very well have been taken yesterday and be equally as accurate. Even before rereading it, I remembered the book well: The story is part adventure novel, part utopian dream about a civilization of Victorians who’d built an isolated society (based around gourmet dinners and innovation) on the “uninhabitable” island of Krakatoa.
The inhabitants were richer than God thanks to an unparalleled diamond mine at the volcano’s base. Collectively they raised their children to have a sense of curiosity and adventure through practical application of knowledge, rather than mindless memorization of book-smarts. Crazy inventions resulted, like electrified, bumper-car living room furniture.
Krakatoa’s Diamond Mines (source)
“I’m a balloonist, and I must admit this kind of efficiency rather bores me. For instance, I far prefer your stunning and elaborately elegant Hall of Mirrors dining room to the mechanized mushroom grove we have just visited. it seems strange to me that mechanical progress always seems to leave the slower demands of elegance far behind. With all of the peace and spare time on this lovely Island, why should any part of your lives be speeded up?”
The two excerpts above continue to jive with my perpetual spirit… I still don’t understand the need to further ‘speed up’ life, and firmly believe that Nature has untold secrets left to reveal if only we’re sensible with her resources. All in all, I’m pretty okay with being me most of the time, and clearly this book had some role in what has always made me “me.”
Long story short, The 21 Balloons receives my highest stamp of approval for gifting to your children, nieces/nephews, or favorite kid down the block.
**A side note, for my fellow literary nerds out there: du Bois almost got in big trouble for the amazing ‘similarities’ between his book and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novella The Diamond as Big as the Ritz, which happened to be one of my favorite stories they “made” me read in high school!