I’ve always enjoyed mysteries, as well as books that take place in a different country–especially if it was a place I’d like to visit. But I think that when I originally picked up this book to read, way back in fifth grade, it was because of the funny word in the title. “Avion”? What was that? The plane on the cover did kind of hint at what it might be, but I wasn’t sure.
When I read the blurb on the back of the book to see what it might be about, it looked exciting–a boy building a plane, spies and France! Even better, the last few pages (yes, I check the last few pages…mostly to see if the main character’s name is still there…it’s a thing) seemed to be in French. I recognized the language from the books at my grandparents’ house. That was that. I just had to read The Avion My Uncle Flew, by Cyrus Fisher.
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Johnny Littlehorn lives on a ranch in Wyoming with his mother and the ranch hands. His father would normally live there too, but he’s been away for over three years, fighting overseas. While he was gone, Johnny tried to help out on the ranch. With so many men away, there are never enough ranch hands and so much work. During a terrible snowstorm, Johnny had set out to help by rounding up cattle. Unfortunately, he was thrown from his pony and hurt his leg very badly. Badly enough that he may never walk again. His mother brings him to all sorts of specialists, but Johnny ends up confined to the house in a wheelchair, waiting for his leg to heal, and for his father.
Johnny’s father had been wounded during the war, and ended up serving his remaining tour as a liaison in France. He had contacts that some of the soldiers didn’t, since Johnny’s mother had been born in France, and her brother Paul still lives there. When he hears about how his son is dealing with the accident, Johnny’s father returns to Wyoming, but only to bring Johnny and his mother back to France for a year. The bonus is that there are excellent Army surgeons over there, and they think they can fix Johnny’s leg.
Once they get to France, the surgeons do fix Johnny’s leg, but he still has a long recovery ahead of him. And unfortunately, his father’s job with the Army is sending him to London for a few months. Johnny’s parents decide that dank and gloomy London wouldn’t be a good recovery spot, so they decide to send Johnny to stay with his Oncle Paul, in St. Chamant.
France isn’t exactly what Johnny would have thought. First of all, there’s the conversation he overhears in the park. Then Albert, the man who is helping his father is seen meeting with the mysterious Monsieur Simonis…who was also in the park. When Johnny confronts the men, they deny what they said and make him look foolish to his parents. Afterward, they get Johnny alone and threaten him if he tells anyone. Johnny is sure that the men are up to no good, but it seems to be related to the house his mother and uncle own, and the whole family thinks that the crisis is over.
When Johnny gets to St. Chamant and meets Oncle Paul, he immediately likes the man. Paul is young, in his early 20s, and is building an experimental plane…and he wants Johnny to help. Paul tells Johnny that by the time his parents return in two months, Johnny will be running to greet them.
Building a plane is hard work, as is recovering from surgery to his leg. Moving from a wheelchair to crutches isn’t easy, but Johnny has a goal in mind–riding a bicycle. His plans are complicated though, by Albert and Msr. Simonis popping up again. When some of his new friends tell him of the rumors of a Nazi spy still in the area, Johnny wonders if the spy and Msr. Simonis are the same person.
Danger threatens the small town just as Johnny starts to feel at home. Can he and his new friends manage to figure out the danger and save themselves?
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The Avion My Uncle Flew takes place when in was written…in 1946, just after World War II ended. It’s an interesting view of France, since people are still affected by the events they’ve just lived through. It also means that the spy mystery has an immediacy that makes it imperative for Johnny and his friends to solve.
Best of all, throughout the book, Johnny learns French words from his uncle and friends, so that by the time you reach the end, Johnny writes an essay on his year in France–in French–and the reader can understand the whole thing! As a kid, I found that extremely cool. As an adult, I’m amazed that Cyrus Fisher manages to make it work so well.
The Avion My Uncle Flew fits into a lot of different genres–it’s a mystery, historical fiction, a foreign language book and an adventure. Johnny builds a plane and recovers from a serious injury. He makes new friends in a new country. It’s a reunion between a family who has been through several different traumas. And it’s a great story. It won a Newbery Honor for one of the best books for children in 1946.
The Avion My Uncle Flew would be great for anyone interested in speaking or learning French, and boys especially should love the story of the airplane. The language is rich, and it is pretty long. I’d recommend it to fifth through seventh grade readers, although it could appeal to kids both older and younger. I wish it was available as a sound recording, because it would make a great story for family car trips.
So, give it a try, and let me know what you think!