J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, November 12, 2016

A “(Mostly) True” Picture Book Landing Now

On Publishers Weekly’s new list of the best picture books of the year is A Voyage in the Clouds: The (Mostly) True Story of the First International Flight by Balloon in 1785, written by Matthew Olshan and illustrated by Sophie Blackall.

The journal’s review of the book said:
The team behind the The Mighty Lalouche (2013) recounts the first international balloon journey, an expedition across the English Channel undertaken by a British doctor named Jeffries and a French balloonist named Blanchard in 1785. Tension arises even before the balloon leaves the ground as Jeffries discovers that Blanchard is plotting to exclude him from the trip. The two men cold-shoulder each other as the journey gets underway, but when the balloon starts to lose altitude, Blanchard’s heroism turns them into friends and allies. (They’re in their bloomers at the time, and Olshan keeps their rapprochement from getting too sentimental with a hilarious peeing scene.)

The baroque ornamentation and carefully lettered speech balloons of Blackall’s spreads recall the work of George Cruikshank; like him, she has a gift for revealing that people dressed in petticoats and tricorne hats are just as human as the rest of us. With humor that’s never snarky, Olshan reminds readers that, sometimes, the challenge adventurers must overcome is not the elements; it’s their own vanity. Ages 4–8.
Dr. John Jeffries was indeed British at the time of this flight, but he was born and raised in Boston. He had become a Loyalist, serving as a British military physician during the war. In 1789, after tensions had dissipated a bit (and he saw an inheritance in Massachusetts while running out of money in Britain), Jeffries returned to his native town for the latter part of his career.

Deborah Kalb interviewed Olshan about the book, asking in particular about that parenthetical word in the subtitle:
Q: The subtitle describes it as a “(mostly) true story.” What did you see as the right blend of the historical facts and your own imagination?

A: The phrase you singled out from the subtitle—“(mostly) true”—is a source of lively conversation about the book. Roger Sutton of The Horn Book wrote an editorial on this very subject in his blog,…in which he describes the challenge for a reviewer in properly categorizing A Voyage in the Clouds; i.e., can a book that characterizes itself as “mostly true” be considered “non-fiction?”

My story was certainly inspired by the flight of Jeffries and Blanchard; most of the events in the story actually happened as they’re described, as I explain in the Author’s Note. But I did take a few liberties in the interest of keeping young readers engaged.

If a book is to be presented as “non-fiction” or taught in classrooms as “history,” I think an author has a responsibility to volunteer the fact that he has departed from the historical record.

But even a story that hews as closely as possible to historical facts as they’ve been received and strives mightily to represent the “factual” is going to wind up being fiction, to a certain degree, if only by depicting the modern author’s impossible intimacy with his protagonists.

The author can’t have known them, but it’s essential to his “authority” that he seem to have.
For Boston 1775’s intimate retelling of Dr. Jeffries’s voyage with Jean Pierre Blanchard, from all the way back in 2006, start here.


Jim Padian said...

Read somewhere Jeffries left Boston in 1775 after death of Dr. Warren, his longtime friend. Both had begun their medical careers under Dr. Lloyd of Boston.

J. L. Bell said...

Dr. Jeffries attached himself to the British military and left in March 1776.

After returning to Boston in the late 1780s, Jeffries rebuilt his career and his local popularity. He told a story of Dr. Joseph Warren visiting him by canoe shortly after the start of the war, trying to recruit him to the Patriot cause. There’s no other evidence for that story. I treat it skeptically, given how Jeffries was already allied with the Crown. Some authors have treated it as yet another example of Warren’s personal bravery and recklessness.