The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock


Historical FictionThe Last Pilot by Benjamin JohncockAfter World War II Air Force pilot Jim Harrison becomes a test pilot. He tests jets in the Mojave Desert with Chuck Yeager and others as the jets break the sound barrier and keep getting faster and better. Jim and his wife Grace have a run down home there where she waits every time he’s flying. She’s friends with the other wives.

Jim and Grace want children. Unfortunately, Grace has a rare condition that blocks up her uterus. They continue at Muroc, he flying test jets and her worrying at home. He is one of the pilots approached to join the astronaut program. At the same time. Grace discovers she is pregnant – despite all the odds against them. Now the couple is facing major life changes. Jim isn’t chosen as one of the first seven so they stay in the desert and his planes go faster and higher. Their daughter Florence is the bright miracle in their life.

The Last Pilot is a poignant story placed in a time in history that appeals to most Americans. The early test pilots and first groups of astronauts were instant and glamorous heroes at a time when the world was in the grips of the Cold War after World War II. Jim doesn’t make the first seven, but is part of the New Nine, the second group of men who joined for the Gemini and Apollo projects.

Grace is diagnosed with Stein-Leventhal Syndrome, now called polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).  The couple badly want children, but her diagnosis rules them out. For them to beat the odds and have a daughter adds to the drama of Benjamin Johncock’s moving first novel.

High powered men (or women) who are involved in their careers often do so at the expense of their family. When difficulties come into the Harrison family in The Last Pilot, Jim spends all his time on the job, flying faster and higher, or hiding out with other pilots at Pancho Barnes’ Happy Bottom Riding Club. Grace spends her time at home with their daughter, neglected when she needs his strength the most. Johncock shows the fractures in the family, usually from Jim’s point of view as the man on the outside of his own life.

Whoever chose the artwork for the dust jacket of the novel captured the essence of The Last Pilot. It shows a twilight vastness with the silhouette of a woman standing alone holding a young child. The colors are gray blue and cream white, lending even more to the tone of the story.

As an English major, the lack of quotes around the conversations annoys me. I quickly got into the rhythm, but there were still times I wasn’t sure what were conversations and what were private thoughts. The writing is tight and spare. The Harrisons are fictional – there was not a Jim Harrison in the early space program. But Johncock did his research and brings Harrison to life, making the reader (me) believe he was part of those early men with “the right stuff” (and yes, Wolfe’s The Right Stuff was part of Johncock’s research).

The Last Pilot is one of those books that lingers and will be appreciated and read by many a book club. I recommend it for the slice of history as well as a good story.

Notice: Strong language

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