To be frank, Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder by Travis Nichols was one of those books that alternately charmed the hell out of me and annoyed the crap out of me.
The story is told through a series of letters written to a Polish woman named Luddie. The letter-writer is an unnamed young man who is taking his girlfriend, Bernadette, and his grandfather, the Bombardier, on a pilgrimage to Poland in search of Luddie. She’s the woman who helped the Bombardier survive after his plane crashed near her village in WWII.
The letters, this quest, and really the Bombardier are the charming aspects of this novel. The Bombardier is a dapper eighty-four-year-old who dresses in wool suits and hats. He tells the history of his life and family through sort of tall tales that can be at times racist and sexist. However, the Bombardier is not a narrow-minded bigot he’s an old man who is set in his ways and yet can still see the error of his ways.
This is his story, his journey, and I was rooting for the Bombardier to be successful in his quest. Plus with his age and failing hearing there’s a real sense of urgency to the story.
I loved all that.
Also, I should admit, I’m generally a sucker for epistolary tales (see Dear Everybody). The idea of telling a story through letters is intriguing. It makes you feel like you’re reading something private, something you maybe shouldn’t be reading. This format really works here.
What kind of drove me crazy was the language of this tale. At times Nichols’ prose is beautiful. His insights are keen and elegant in their simplicity. Like this bit, that I adored:
Telling a story to someone you don’t know is like praying to a God you don’t understand.
But there was a lot of repetition that was puzzling and just plain annoying. Take this for instance:
Tiny Polish cars speeding past on both sides of the road are new things to know. They have new names.
Giant Polish trucks are also new things to know.
Giant Polish trucks and tiny Polish cars are new things to know in a new story with new names.
This is just one example, but it happens about three hundred other times throughout the novel. I couldn’t figure out why. When I first picked up on it, I thought maybe there was some significance to the repeated phrases. Maybe they all had to do with the past or the Bombardier or Bernadette specifically. But there seemed to be no method to the madness that I could discern. By the second half of the book I was reading every other sentence because the repetition was wearing on me.
Not only does this serve to annoy the reader, but it makes the unnamed narrator seem slow or simple which is in contrast to a lot of the things he says and does. It was confusing. However, the Bombardier’s journey and stories are interesting and engaging enough to see past the weird writing tic.