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  • Yehoshua Paul

1927 - The Midnight Folk

1927. Charles Lindbergh wins the Orteig Prize by making the first solo nonstop transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in his single engined aircraft “The Spirit of St. Louis.” Lindbergh had flown approximately 5,800 km in thirty three hours and twenty-nine minutes, and this lands him eternal fame and 25,000 dollars. Prior to his win, six aviators had lost their lives in pursuit of this prize.

Inspired by Lindbergh’s success, James D. Dole, a pineapple magnate from Hawaii, offers his own 25,000 dollar prize for the first fixed-wing aircraft to cross the Pacific Ocean from Oakland to Honolulu. Eleven aircrafts are certified to compete in the race. Of those, three crash prior to the race, leaving eight. Of those eight, two crash on takeoff, two go missing during the race, and two are forced to return for repairs. One of the planes that returns for repairs, “The Dallas Spirit”, takes off again to search for the missing planes and crews and is never seen again. Only two planes complete the flight, “Woollaroc” (first) and “Aloha” (second). In total, ten people lose their lives as a result of this race.

Long distance non-stop flights are a hazardous gamble. The pilots who undertake them risk their lives for a very uncertain chance at fame. Lindbergh’s gamble pays off. Less so for the winners of the Dole Air Race, which very few people have ever heard of. In 1927, the author, John Masefield, takes a similar (albeit, less life threatening) risk. He writes a non-stop children’s novel, The Midnight Folk, which is uninterrupted by even a single chapter break.

John Masefield (1878-1967) was an English poet and writer. He was the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1930 until 1967. Educated in Warwick School, Masefield began his career, at age 13 as an apprentice aboard the HMS Conway. He was planning on spending his life aboard ships, and he felt that the apprenticeship would help him break his addiction to reading. Masefield discovered pretty quickly that spending lengthy periods of time away from civilization only made things worse. He now had copious amounts of free time to spend reading, writing, and developing his skill as a storyteller.

Four years and several ships later, Masefield’s urge to become a writer became unbearable, and he abandoned his hope of becoming a sailor. in New York City he decided to take a gamble at restarting his life. Masefield deserted his post, and after several months of wandering, found himself a permanent job in a carpet factory, which gave him a fixed income he could use to spend on books. In 1897, Masefield returned home to England as a passenger. By that point his skill had grown to such a point that he was able to get his poems published in various periodicals, earning him public fame and praise from critics. In 1902, Masefield released his first poem collection “Salt Water Ballads”, and in 1912 he was awarded the annual Edmond de Polignac prize. Masefield had achieved his dream.

One of Masefield’s best known books is Midnight Folk, a book that tells the story of the boy Kay Harker who is living alone in the country with his governess and his maid. Kay’s great grandfather, Aston Tirrold Harker, was a famous ship’s captain who had been entrusted by the church to transport a great treasure. However, he was betrayed by his crew, and the treasure was lost. It is up to Kay with the help of various talking animals and mysterious magical helpers to unravel the mystery and return the lost treasure to the church. Kay is opposed by a coven of witches led by an evil wizard, Abner Brown. Brown’s ancestors have also been seeking the treasure ever since it was first lost.

Kay’s adventures take place at night, after he has gone to bed, or when he is alone by himself. Initially, this leaves him very uncertain whether his experiences are real or merely dreams. However, every time he wakes up there is always something to remind him that what he just experienced really happened, in case he or the reader had any doubts.

I have very mixed feelings about this book. The book is written beautifully, and ignites the imagination. It’s a children’s novel with a child’s sense of logic, and therefore anything and everything can make sense in the story: flying with bat wings, nocturnal rides on magical horses, sea adventures on tiny ships crewed by mice, and even rats wishing for haggis. You never know what’s going to happen next, but it’s always fun. At the same time, the book has no chapter breaks, or any indicators to let the reader know when it’s a good time to pause the story. This is a problem if you don’t have three-four uninterrupted hours to spend on the book. Another issue I have with the book has to do with the ending. I don’t want to spoil it, but after all the build-up, the ending came as a huge disappointment. We do get a bonus credits section though, in which we get to find out what happened to all the characters both major and minor (including all the talking animals). I had a lot of fun reading this section, but it wasn't enough to make up for the ending.

(The trailer below is for The Box of Delights, an award winning BBC adaptation of Masefield's 1935 sequel with the same name.)

The Omer today is foundation in eternity, and for me it took Gaiman’s Sandman to discover how these attributes express themselves in this book. In Sandman, Gaiman reveals seven endless eternal concepts born of Father Time and Mother Night. Two of these fundamental concepts are Dream and Desire, who constantly like to compete with each other over influence. This competition extends itself to Midnight Folk where Kay Harker’s adventures in the Dreaming compete with Abner Brown and the witches desire for the treasure. In the book, this is a competition that only Destiny can decide. However, In the real world, both dream and desire can bend Destiny to their will, something Masefield experienced first-hand when he made his dream to become a writer reality; changing his destiny from sailor to poet laureate. It’s not just Masefield who can change his destiny though. Each of us has this power (more so because we’re Jews, not subject to fortunes), and it is up to us to use our dreams and desires to shape our destinies to our will.

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