Published in 2007, Flight is one of Sherman Alexie’s more recent novels. Find it on Bookshop. His critically acclaimed YA debut The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian came out a few months after Flight‘s publication. Together these novels illustrate how teen narrators can comfortably inhabit both adult and young adult novels. More about that later.
The book starts with a simple request from the narrator: “Call me Zits. Everybody calls me Zits.” In other words, the narrator has no name. Given the structure of the novel, this choice actually works. Throughout the story, Zits is rarely called by any kind of name that would be termed as his own. The opening line also tells readers everything they need to know about Zits. Specifically that this fifteen-year-old half-Irish, half-Indian kid doesn’t think enough of himself to bother using his own name. Worse, Zits is pretty sure no one else thinks much better of him.
Orphaned at six and in foster care since he was ten, Zits has slipped through the cracks and is truly a lost soul. After an unceremonious exit from his twentieth foster home and his latest stint in the kid jail in Seattle’s Central District, Zits starts to think that maybe he doesn’t really need a family. Maybe what he needs is some kind of revenge.
But things don’t go as planned. Instead of punishing the white people who are abstractly responsible for his present situation, Zits finds himself on a time-traveling, body-shifting quest for redemption and understanding.
Zits’ first “stop” is inside the body of a white FBI agent during the civil rights era in Red River, Idaho. From there he moves to the Indian camp at the center of Custer’s Last Stand, then a nineteenth century soldier, a modern pilot with his own variety of demons and, finally, Zits finds himself in a body more familiar than he’d like to admit.
As many other reviewers are quick to point out, Flight is Alexie’s first novel in ten years. Unlike previous works, where characters and plots intersected (even in his short stories), this novel remains disjointed. It’s the kind of book that could easily be seen as a grouping of short stories. Except that each segment follows Zits’ spiritual evolution. For this reason, the novel is obviously much more character driven than plot driven. But Alexie makes it work.
I consider Flight to be adult fiction. Zits is a teen, so it could be YA, but that fact is largely irrelevant to the main machinations of the novel–which is why it’s an adult book but “True Diary” whose narrator is close to Zits’ age is a YA book.
Finally, a word on the ending of the novel: It’s optimistic. There is some talk that the ending is too up, that things come together a bit too easily. In terms of the plot that could be true although I’m more of a mind that the ending was already in the works from the beginning (the fact that “The wounded always recognize the wounded” and other events support me in this claim).
Some have claimed that the happy ending might be reason to suggest that Flight is a YA book because only a book written for teens would have such an abrupt ending. That’s bogus. This is an adult book that teens can enjoy and the ending doesn’t change that. After reading this novel it becomes clear that Zits has been through a lot. Way more than any fifteen-year-old should have to take. For Alexie to end the novel in any other way would have been a slap in the face both for Zits and the readers invested in his fate.
Flight is a really quick read (I finished it in a day) and entertaining throughout. The novel doesn’t have the depth of character found in Reservation Blues or “True Diary” but the story remains different enough from Alexie’s usual work to make Flight a refreshing departure nonetheless.
Possible Pairings: Leverage by Joshua Cohen, If I Stay by Gayle Forman, Blank Confession by Pete Hautman, The Homeward Bounders by Diana Wynne Jones, I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga