On Borders and Beth Kephart's Cloud Hopper

In the movie Hook (circa 1991), Tinkerbell has all the sass of Barrie's original, but the film version adds a layer of emotional depth, especially in the scene where she says,

You know that place between sleep and awake, that place where you still remember dreaming? That's where I'll always love you, Peter Pan. That's where I'll be waiting.

Scientifically speaking, that state between sleep and awake is called hypnagogia, and according to some sources, it is the central hub of creativity. Beth Kephart, drawing upon her seemingly endless well of creativity, has created a world in Cloud Hopper that operates beautifully and realistically. It also feels like a dream. Always fresh and honest and true, Cloud Hopper gives the reader a gift: pain that blurs with pleasure, friendship that edges into family, story that throbs like a heartbeat.

I like to know next to nothing about a book before I begin. I like to feel launched, trusting the author to take me somewhere, even if I don't know how we will get there. The simple and gorgeous cover gives me hot air balloons, but what is a Cloud Hopper? Is it real? Fantasy?


It is - like the whole book - completely real but smudged with elements of the fantastical. Smaller than a traditional hot air balloon, a cloud hopper is a single-person balloon without a basket. The pilot is harnessed or might sit on a seat attached to the inflated envelope. The narrative drops the reader into a field aside Sophie Blanchard (named for a lady balloonist) and her friends K and Wyatt, looking up at the sky at a girl "walking on the clouds." A cloud hopper.


In signature Kephart style, these characters are finely drawn, immediately recognizable as young people we want to know. They have their own kind of talk, spare but lovely, intimate and inspiring. In fact, the opening chapter feels like eavesdropping on a group, one that would welcome you in if they knew you were there, but unaware, they leave you on the outside looking in. Or perhaps it's like flying overhead, seeing them from a distance.


Flight is a common thread in this book. There is, of course, the mystery cloud hopper who flies and then falls in the forest when an unexpected storm blows up. There is the municipal airport (the Muni) where Wyatt and K live with Joseph Bell and where the small group of Vietnam veterans has built a life together, piloting planes and taking tourists up in balloons on the weekends.


There is also Grandma Aubrey, the one who named Sophie B, the one who has raised her and loved her and flown away with her from their former life, touching down in Gilbertine, a place where she can wake up to balloons. Grandma Aubrey has MS, and it's getting bad. Sophie B is trying her best to be brave.


Finally, there is the bigger picture - the unfolding story of the unknown girl who fell from the sky. Her flight, fantastical as it appeared, dangerous as it was, mirrors the flight of countless others who are forced to navigate this country without documentation, without language, always moving on, in flight from the fear of what will happen if they are identified. There is much to consider here, a weighty handful of issues that emerge as the story of these young people unwinds and intertwines along the way.


Contributing much to this novel is the art by William Sulit. Each rendering has a simplicity that belies its fine detail, bringing each character or vignette fully to life without stealing from the reader's mental images. Each time, I would think, how does he do it? How does he know just what they look like?


That place between sleep and awake, where you still remember dreaming? That's where you'll find this book. That's where it waits, inviting you to step inside Sophie B's world. Like any good dream, it sits more comfortably in questions than answers. Like all of real life, it holds hands with the hard and the painful. It exists in that perfect borderland, and we all have citizenship there.


Cloud Hopper is the first novel from the Penelope Editions imprint of Penny Candy Books. It will be released on September 8, 2020. Preorder your copy now!


The best books spark the best conversations! If you have thoughts to share, please feel free to email me at sarabethwest52@gmail.com. I promise a reply.

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