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Brendan I. Koerner
The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking
Crown / Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-307-88610-1
Publication Date: 06-18-2013
320 Pages; $26

Date Reviewed: 07-21-2013
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2013

Index:  Non-Fiction  General Fiction  Mystery  

We like to think that America is the heart of the re-invented self. Upward mobility is our mantra and motto; with grit, guts and persistence, we can bootstrap ourselves into a better life. But it's not just American society and economics that keeps this dream in the otherworld. It's all too possible to go about re-inventing yourself, only to find out that you are not really capable of change.

Brendan I. Koerner's 'The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking' is a true-life crime story of re-invention, set against the backdrop of a decade-long crime spree that is today almost unimaginable. Koerner's terse, tense narrative tells the story of Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow, who hijacked a Western Airlines flight with transformative consequences for both, told against the larger story of a nation in transformation. Koerner captures the emotional arcs of Holder and Kerkow, a ragged process of accelerated maturation, with humor, understanding and pathos in a book that is impossible to put down and packs an undeniable punch. History, writ large and small, has never been so engaging.

At the heart of this story are Kerkow and Holder. Kerkow was once a gorgeous runner and athlete in high school. Holder was a Vietnam vet who had fought heroically, but not dealt with the stress well. Upon his return, they met, and it was not too long before Holder decided he was going to hijack a plane. Koerner offers readers a love story shot through with tragedy, on a very personal level but as well on a national level. One cannot help but think (hope) that the government treats today's veterans differently. Holder is quite intelligent, almost a nerd; from his childhood onward, he enjoys building model trains. Kerkow is bit more of a party girl. But once they step aboard Western Airlines Flight 701, their lives are to change forever.

Interwoven with the story of Holder, Kerkow and their hijacking are dozens of other stories about air travel in the 1960's and early 1970's. Some are frightening, some are absurd (the Congressional hearings on the matter), some are funny, and some are just plain weird. Koerner is a master of telling story at three levels; the big national and international picture; the single-serving anecdote and the involving crime and love story that dominates the book. The result is a rich and rewarding reading experience.

In the light of today's security measures, it's odd that hijacking seems both quaint and beyond extreme, but reading about what happened aboard the Holder-Kerkow flight makes it clear how high the stakes were, how hard the fights were. Holder and Kerkow both saw the hijacking as a means making a difference, a statement and of literally transporting themselves to a new life. But life only lets us go as far as we are prepared to go. We can escape from the lives we are leading, from the traps that surround us only to step into the same set of steel jaws again and again.

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