In many ways, Gretchen K. Wing’s protagonist in The Flying Burgowski, Jocelyn Burgowski (Joss, for short) is a typical teenager. She admires and appreciates a favorite teacher, argues with her older brother, Michael (in an awkward rebellious stage), and hangs out with her friends, the popular Savannah and the sweet social misfit, Louis. She loves to relax with a good book, usually one in the Harry Potter series. The third is her favorite.
Then there are the atypical aspects of Joss’s life. She lives off the coast of Washington, on Dalby Island, beautiful with its tall fir trees and surrounding water, although not a mall or a MacDonald’s in sight. Her father runs the all-purpose store and shocks his children when he abruptly marries Lorraine, the seemingly stereotypical librarian. Joss’s mother abandoned the family nine years earlier for mainland life and has struggled with alcoholism and pill addiction.
And then there’s Joss’s very vivid dreams, dreams in which she takes flight and soars over the island. Unlike Harry Potter, she doesn’t need a broom. No, she flies as freely as a bird. On her fourteenth birthday, which occurs on the summer solstice, she discovers that the dreams were preparation for the real thing. She instinctively takes off from The Toad, a large rock on the island, and life will never be the same. How could it? Even if she and Michael (in trouble again for driving his father’s truck into a ditch and smoking pot) weren’t sent to the mainland to spend time with their mother, Joss’s life is forever on a new course, one that is mapped against the sky.
To Wing’s enormous credit, the novel never loses its convincing realism despite the main character’s spending a good portion of it in the sky, her arms outstretched, her body turning as she banks left and right, her lungs filling with the scent of lilies. The author weaves these scenes seamlessly, beautifully into the narrative. We root for Joss as she plans her flight sessions, catch our breath when she takes a rough landing, her skin scraped, and worry with her that she’ll be sighted by someone who happens to look up at the evening sky. The realism is complemented, however, by the exhilaration of these scenes. Joss is so thrilled by the experience of flight that the reader wants to take her hand and witness what she does as a human bird, to feel that rush of air swim against our skin.
Joss’s gift for flight, of course, is mired in old and interesting secrets that involve her mother and even her new step-mother. Her aerial talent is tested when she adjusts to a new school, unkind classmates, her mother’s substance abuse relapses, and the surprising but welcome maturation of her brother. Wing’s poignant and sensitive handling of Joss’s and Michael’s time on the mainland underscores the protective power of sibling relationships in the face of parental weakness or failure. The self-growth that they experience as a result stays with them when they return to Dalby Island and resume life as they knew it, but with far greater self-awareness.
The Flying Burgowski isn’t your typical young adult book and that’s a very good thing. Wing infuses realistic teen life, with all its problems, with a hefty dose of magic realism, and the result is an engaging and captivating fusion. After reading it, don’t be surprised if you find yourself looking up at the sky, ready to sight the lucky human endowed with the gift of flight.