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banner in the sky

10 may 2011

Banner in the Sky, a 1955 Newbery Honor book by James Ullman, is a true yarn. I mean that in the best possible sense. It's corny without being schmaltzy. It's got boys'-own adventure without jingoism or racism. It's got some excellent technical detail on mountain-climbing. It has a plot – oh, man, does it have a plot – and it doesn't get sidetracked from the plot into authorial excurses or stray narrative avenues. It's hard not to like.

If Banner in the Sky seems dated after 57 years, it's in the book's commonplace (for the day) sexism. Rudi Matt, in 1865 Switzerland, wants to be the first to climb "The Citadel." His father had died trying to climb that same mountain. Rudi's mother doesn't want him to try. She wants him to become a dishwasher. Or rather, to apprentice himself to the hotel trade, which means starting as a dishwasher. Rudi usually leaves a hotelful of dishes undone while he reconnoiters various routes up the Citadel. Various men mentor him through the process of individuating from his smothering Mom.

You'd think that mountain-climbing stories would be dramatic enough without blocking characters, but they seem to need them. Rudi simply going up the Citadel isn't enough; he needs his mother to try (figuratively) to drag him back down. She isn't just hysterical; she has a certain point. Everybody who tries to climb the mountain dies, and Rudi's dream (to climb it, and plant the red flannel shirt his father died in at the summit) seems suicidal.

Melodramatic friction is also provided by a rivalry between a guide named Saxo and one named Franz (Rudi's uncle), who keep facing off in shouting matches over whose village has braver guides, and who is less afraid of the Citadel.

Despite this stuff, the novel, as I've said, gains great traction from its focus on getting to the top of the mountain. The blocking characters and dynamics are as integral to the plot as the flaws in the mountainside itself.

One of the odder obstacles is a narrow channel that Rudi alone must creep through in order to save the expedition. It is dark, narrow, tubular, and moist. He gets stuck, pants for air. It doesn't look like he'll be able to emerge on the other side. Finally he works his hands, then his shoulders, through, and emerges headfirst into the open.

At the bottom of the mountain, Rudi's mother realizes (without knowing anything about the ordeal) that now's the time for her to cut the apron strings and realize that Rudi has to be his own man, a master climber, not an apprentice dishwasher. The symbolism is so heavy that, like Rudi, you just have to put your head down and barrel through it.

Ullman, James Ramsey. Banner in the Sky. 1954. New York: HarperCollins, 1988.