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Air apparent

Unlearning to Fly A Memoir; Jennifer Brice; University of Nebraska Press: 204 pp., $24.95

September 16, 2007|Marjorie Gellhorn Sa'adah | Marjorie Gellhorn Sa'adah is a writer in Los Angeles.

"How is it possible to bring order out of memory?" So begins Beryl Markham's "West With the Night," the book that made Jennifer Brice want to become a pilot. Markham's writing may have been the inspiration, but it was Brice's Alaskan homeland that tossed her into the air, as she skittered like a sparrow across a runway, learning to land her plane. Alaska gave Brice short runways carved of Aleutian Island stone, and the misjudged runways of remote frozen lakes covered with snow that snagged wing-tips until her plane sank to its belly in exquisite stillness. "Unlearning to Fly," a memoir in essays, doesn't order Brice's memories so much as allow forces of wind and weather to reveal them.

Brice was born in Fairbanks. Her mother was a nursing school graduate from the East Coast who'd meant to stay in Alaska only the requisite two years on her public health service contract. Brice's father, a flight mechanic, proposed in the airport on her way home one year for Christmas. He established a land-clearing business that would take him to the bush for much of Brice's childhood; her mother continued a career in public health and set up households in northern villages such as Noorvik and Wainwright. They returned to Fairbanks for Brice and her siblings to attend school. In the '70s, the Alaska pipeline brought more work for her father's business, and whole milk rather than Carnation powdered.

Paradoxically, with a mother in a career that reads like a socially acceptable disguise for adventuring, the family limited Brice's childhood roles: ballet, emptying the dishwasher after dinner and setting her hair in curlers each night before bed. She didn't own blue jeans until high school. She read through her parents' bookshelves and also devoured romance novels -- "dreadful books . . . two or three a day, still warm from the hands of the friend who'd loaned them to me." Brice had a younger brother, two younger sisters and, later, another brother, an Alaskan earthquake adopted into their family: "a four-year-old ball of fury."

"In the North, flying is the most quotidian form of travel," Brice explains. It also appears to be the form of travel with death most clearly on its horizon. "When an Alaskan dies in a plane crash, I'm rarely more than two degrees of separation from knowing him or her." Flying is embedded in her family, where "the work depended on someone's being able to land at remote airstrips or on beaches or gravel bars." And yet, Brice learns to fly only as an adult; she thinks she is "soft. Learning to fly would be hard."

The reader sees in Brice's stories her family's attempts at an ordinary life in terrain that would just as soon "buck us off its back." She asks if it's cowardice or strength that narrates her family history. She dares ask the question of whether they love or despise their adopted brother and wonders if a family's expectations of each other can ever be changed -- even after the daughter goes to work for the father driving a 50-ton dump truck with brakes that won't hold it on an incline, an incline that falls to the Bering Sea, a sea whose shelf drops 200 feet within two yards of shore.

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