“Wingwalkers” Dives Into the Wild History of the Early Twentieth Century

If you ever wanted to know how barnstormers lived and died during the Great Depression, you can witness it in Taylor Brown’s Wingwalkers. Brown uniquely parallels the adventures and misfortunes of aerial entertainers Della and Zeno in a dueling timeline with ambitious author and pilot William Faulkner. Brown’s prose captures the environment through his description, dialogue, and characters that color the bleakness of poverty-stricken America.

The story is told from both Della’s and Faulkner’s points of view in alternating chapters. Faulkner’s thread begins first; he witnesses a crash landing of a parachute stuntman on the family farm, and from that moment on, he adds flight alongside his goal of becoming a writer. Della storms onto the scene almost twenty years later. Following a tragedy, she turns to Zeno, a traumatized flying ace, and they team up for adventure and escape. “Della the Daring” is a wingwalker, and it’s just what it sounds like: climbing out on the wings of an aircraft zooming across the sky, hanging off the side with no tether, daring gravity to snatch her away. Della yearns to settle in California, a symbol of hope during this period, and Zeno’s self-destruction constantly drifts them off target. When the couple meets Faulkner in New Orleans, Della realizes she’s at the point of losing her dream forever.

The main theme seems to encourage people to let go of the past. Della’s transformation begins by running from suffering and becomes about running towards security. For her, the day-to-day hustling is movement, not progress, and the question becomes whether Zeno will adopt her point-of-view. Della strives to rise up from the ashes of the past, where Zeno remains stuck, and this is Della’s greatest challenge. Faulkner proves to be in great contrast to this, as he seldom looks back at those who taunted and doubted him. If this were a science lab, then Faulkner represents a “control group” to the Della/Zeno experiment, offering a map to success if they choose to follow it.

The prose really brings the story to life. Brown gives rich descriptions with the smoothness of Elmore Leonard, without letting the reader lose sight of the uncertainty of the period:

“[Della] knew, as she always did, that some part of them wanted her to die. She could almost feel their eyes pulling her to earth, the compounded force of their wills, the dark curiosity of what she might look like skewered in the crown of an oak or busted like a watermelon on the hood of a T Model Ford. But when the machine roared upward into the sun with her body dangling from the wing, Della knew she was pulling their red hearts high into their throats, and it was their own blood they could nearly taste on their tongues.”

Both Della and Zeno have experienced fear and trauma, and they turn to the sky for a release. Thus, their journey is marked with airborne imagery: flying is freedom, and the opposite is despair: “Della looked down at her hands, so like paltry wings. Five-feathered, flightless.” The tragedies that each character suffered follows them throughout the story: pock-marked walls and lead shot follow Della, just as fire and smoke chase Zeno. Brown’s subtle reminders of their experiences with death create an emotional bond with the reader throughout the entire work.

Brown’s ear for dialogue is as tuned to the American South as Annie Proulx’s is to Wyoming, giving a soundtrack to accompany the picturesque scenery. Early in the story, Zeno confronts a farmer, who he enlisted to pass the hat while he and Della performed in the sky above them:

“Where’s the paper money?”

“Wasn’t none.”

Zeno’s eyes scoured the man, the bandy legs, the face like dried tobacco leaf. “Designs on a new mule, friend? Is that it?”

“The old farmer seemed to grow taller before them, his spine straightening. His eyes went white-lipped, round. “Are ye saying I stoled ye money, son?”

“How ‘bout you empty the pockets of them dungarees and show me different.”

“I never emptied my pockets for no man…”

These interactions add dimension to the story and endear the characters to the reader. Of course, you see Della and Zeno perform acrobatic feats, but you don’t get a sense of their strength until you hear them speak.

As a work of historical fiction, this novel captures the essence of the southern United States in the early twentieth century without coming across like a textbook. Faulkner’s thread commences in 1910, in a region that seems to still be in a state of recovery from the Civil War. Della’s story begins as America falls into the Great Depression. Brown reveals this era through his characters’ experiences. For example, aerial performers often dropped printed leaflets from the sky to announce an upcoming event. Here, the reader learns about this as Della and Zeno follow a trail of them to the air show in New Orleans.

The novel is well-paced. Della’s story is the main force of the novel, and her escapades keep the reader turning the pages. Faulkner’s tale is sometimes slower, and I suspect that’s because Brown dutifully honored the author’s memory (per his Author’s Note). Faulkner’s story is necessary, however, because his interest in flight drives him to attend the airshow and set up the crucial rendezvous with the barnstormers, and his journey as a writer may influence the couples’ future.

Overall, this was both an entertaining and thought-provoking piece, particularly with the historical backdrop of the South. The writing is smooth and rich, the characters are believable, and the pace rushes to a climax where there is only one of two outcomes. Brown uses all the tools in his writing kit to give the reader a rewarding and powerful experience.

By Taylor Brown
St. Martin’s Press
Published April 19, 2022