The Twenty-One Balloons

The Twenty-One Balloons

infobox Book |
name = The Twenty-One Balloons
title_orig =
translator =

image_caption =
author = William Pène du Bois
illustrator =
cover_artist =
country = United States
language = English
series =
genre = Children's novel
publisher = The Viking Press
release_date = 1947
english_release_date =
media_type = Print (hardcover and paperback)
pages =
isbn = NA
preceded_by =
followed_by =

"The Twenty-One Balloons" is a novel by William Pène du Bois, published in 1947 and awarded the Newbery Medal for excellence in American children's literature in 1948. The story is about a retired schoolteacher whose ill-fated balloon trip leads him to discover an island full of great wealth and fantastic inventions. The events and ideas are based both on scientific fact and imagination, and the descriptions are accompanied by illustrations by du Bois.

Plot summary

An introduction compares two kinds of travel: one that aims to reach a place within the shortest time, and another that begins without regard to speed and without a destination in mind. Balloon travel is said to be ideal for the latter kind.

The main story begins "in medias res" with the rescue of Professor William Waterman Sherman, who was picked up by a steamship whilst floating among a strange wreck of twenty deflated gas balloons in the North Atlantic. Sherman, a recently retired schoolteacher, was last seen three weeks ago leaving San Francisco on a giant balloon, determined to spend a year drifting alone. The world waits breathlessly to find out how Sherman could have circumnavigated the globe in record time and landed in the ocean with twenty balloons rather than the one with which he began his journey. After several days' rest and a hero's welcome, the professor recounts his journey before a captivated audience.

Sherman's flight over the Pacific Ocean was uneventful until an unfortunate accident involving a seagull forced him to crash land on the volcanic island of Krakatoa. He discovers that the island is populated by twenty families sharing the wealth of a secret diamond mine—by far the richest in the world—which they operate as a cartel. Each year, the families sail to the outside world with a small load of diamonds, to purchase supplies for the hidden and sophisticated civilization they have built on the island. Each family has been assigned one of the first twenty letters of the alphabet, and lives in its own whimsical and elaborate house that also serves as a restaurant. The Krakatoan society follows a calendar with twenty-day months. On "A" Day of each month, everyone eats in Mr. and Mrs. A's American restaurant; on "B" Day, in Mr. and Mrs. B's British chop house; on "C" Day, in Mr. and Mrs. C's Chinese restaurant; on "D" Day, in Mr. and Mrs. D's Dutch restaurant, and so forth. Sherman's first friend on the island, Mr. F, runs a French restaurant containing a replica of the Hall of Mirrors. The houses are full of incredible items, such as Mr. M's Moroccan house, which has a living room with mobile furniture that operate like bumper cars. The children of the island invented their own form of amusement that combines elements from merry-go-round and balloon travel.

When a volcano on Krakatoa erupts, the families and Sherman escape on a flying platform kept aloft by twenty balloons (The book's title refers to these balloons along with Sherman's original balloon). As the platform drifts westward around the world, the families parachute off to India and Belgium to start their new lives. Sherman remains on the platform and finally descends onto the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, where he is rescued. The professor concludes by telling the audience he intends to build an improved balloon for a year of life in the air.

The novel describes Krakatoa as an island in the Pacific Ocean, but the Sunda Strait that contains the island is technically an arm of the Indian Ocean. Perhaps due to this confusion, other works have since made incorrect references to Krakatoa's location. For example, despite the title of the 1969 film "Krakatoa, East of Java", the island is actually located west of Java.

Comparison to "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz"

The story is preceded by a note from du Bois, [cite book|title=The Twenty-One Balloons|first=William Pène du Bois|publisher=The Viking Press|year=1947 Page headed "Author's Note" preceding the table of contents] informing that just before publication his publisher noted a "strong resemblance" between the book and "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz", a short story written by F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1922. [cite web|title=The Diamond as Big as the Ritz|url=|publisher=The Board of Trustees of the University of South Carolina|date=1998-01-22|accessdate=2006-07-15: first appeared in the magazine "The Smart Set", 1922. [ Full text online] .] [cite book |title="The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" and Other stories |publisher=Courier Dover Publications |year=1998 |origyear=1920, 1922 |id=ISBN 0-486-29991-0 |first=F. Scott |last=Fitzgerald, copyright page attributes a story as having been published in cite book |title=Tales of the Jazz Age |publisher=Charles Scribner's Sons |location=New York |year=1922] Du Bois acknowledges it is "not only quite similar in general plot, but was also altogether a collection of very similar ideas." He says it was the first time he had heard of Fitzgerald's story, and "the fact that F. Scott Fitzgerald and I apparently would spend our billion in like ways right down to being dumped from bed into a bathtub is, quite frankly, beyond my explanation."

The two stories share the common concept of a giant diamond mine and the resulting need to protect the secret of its existence. However, they differ significantly in tone and plot details. Fitzgerald's story does not involve balloons, nor the Utopian society on Krakatoa and the fantastic mechanical inventions described in du Bois's story. Fitzgerald's story also takes a darker tone, with the mad owner of the mine having constructed a hollow in the earth to imprison the unfortunates who had discovered the mine. The story's protagonist has a sexual encounter with the daughter of the mine owner, and discovers that he faces execution.

The stories also differ in their intentions and audiences. "The Twenty-One Balloons" is a children's story, with only a mild, playful interest in social commentary. By contrast, "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" is a parable for adults; it articulates large social themes that preoccupied Fitzgerald throughout his career as a mature writer, and which found their way into his major novels, notably "The Great Gatsby".


External links

* [ "The Twenty-One Balloons" Film Project] , all motion picture and electronic rights property of [ "Big View Pictures Inc."]

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