The Skies Belong To Us by Brendan I. Koerner

Subtitled:
Love and Death in the Golden Age of Hijacking.

Review:
From 1968-1973, hijacking, once a largely anomalous and relatively peaceful act, grew into an epidemic of such proportions that weekly hijackings became the norm. In The Skies Belong to Us, Brendan I. Koerner traces the history of skyjacking from an act of rebellion rooted in the mystique of Cuba into a wildly successful and life-threatening act of piracy that was seemingly unstoppable due to the airlines collective intractability over the necessity of airport security screening procedures.

Koerner’s insightful historical and cultural analysis feels fresh and current, avoiding the fusty “those were the good old days” miasma that so many works about or set in the 1960s/early 1970s seem to be mired in. The historical figures who appear in the book (Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver, and Fidel Castro to name a few) come to life as real people, not just symbols of the revolution. Koerner writes history like it’s a thriller, and even knowing that the hijackings of this time period never hit 9/11 proportions doesn’t spoil anything at all in terms of suspense and sheer narrative pleasure.

Koerner focuses on a pair of hijackers: Roger Holder, a bookish black man with paranoid tendencies who’d gone AWOL after too many tours in Vietnam, and Cathy Kerkow, a blonde, exuberant, feisty girl of 21 whose hijacking suitcase consisted of a bikini and sandals and not much else. She must not have completely understood Holder’s plan, to use the plane to “rescue” Angela Davis, an high profile black intellectual on trial for kidnapping, and deliver the avowed Communist (and enemy of California governor Ronald Reagan) to Hanoi where they would all be welcomed with open arms as heroes in the struggle. He traces their lives from their first meeting as children and their later chance reunion that both deemed fate. We see that they are products of their time, but Koerner doesn’t leave them stuck in history as symbols or archetypes. As people, their personal struggles made them sympathetic without undermining the sheer audacity of the criminal act they perpetrated. I’m haunted by the ending, where we find out where Holder and Kerkow are (or aren’t) now, and we see how far the world has moved on

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