BookBrowse Reviews Dirt Bikes, Drones, and Other Ways to Fly by Conrad Wesselhoeft

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Dirt Bikes, Drones, and Other Ways to Fly

by Conrad Wesselhoeft

Dirt Bikes, Drones, and Other Ways to Fly by Conrad Wesselhoeft
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Apr 2014, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2015, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Tamara Smith

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This brilliant YA novel explores the very grown-up struggle between choosing what you want to do versus what you have to do.

Seventeen-year-old Arlo Santiago wants to break free – to fly. And it's no wonder he feels that way. There is much in his life that weighs him down. Five months ago, his mother was shot and killed in a hold-up at the local market where he lives in New Mexico. His father is out of work and drinking too much. And his sister, Siouxsie, has just been diagnosed with Huntington's Disease. Conrad Wesselhoeft's title says it all. Dirt Bikes, Drones and Other Ways to Fly. Arlo is obsessed with a video game called "Drone Pilot" which simulates drone flight. He is also constantly pulling stunts on his dirt bike. Yes, Arlo wants to fly. And, in these ways, he does.

Conrad Wesselhoeft knows Arlo. He knows his pain – a mix of grief for his mother and responsibility for his family. He knows his philosophy – a sense of true connection with the world. Wesselhoeft also knows how to craft a first-person point of view that evokes empathy and a sense of familiarity in the reader. He is not sentimental and he is not melodramatic. He writes real – and as a result, I felt like I was standing on top of a New Mexico mesa with Arlo. Utilizing short, staccato sentences that are chock full of lyricism, I was able to feel what it is like to be Arlo in this world. Wesselhoeft puts the reader right in the action, and inside Arlo's heart. The result is pretty stunning. Listen to this, when Arlo jumps off a steep bluff with his dirt bike at a local football arena:

I am in the Zone.
Full Drone.
Happy.
Free.
I grab the handles. Slam to the ground, skid, catching my balance with my left foot, bump blindly over rocks and ruts and weeds. The shocks soak it all in. Every penny I've ever pumped into these shocks is paying me back a thousand bucks.
God bless good shocks.
I brake to a stop.
Pull off my helmet. Just sit there, in the darkness, my old Yam purring under me.
It's so peaceful up here. The stars and constellations so much closer. Orion the Hunter. His faithful dog, Sirius. If only El Guapo were as faithful.
I want to stay here. Above the madness. Closer to heaven. Closer to Mom. Right now, I could as easily cry as laugh. Both are inside me, equidistant from my center of balance.
Here, it feels like everything in the universe is hitched together.

Here, it feels like everything in the universe is hitched together. That's it. That's Arlo's philosophy right there, beautifully woven into his body, his actions, his way of life.

Arlo is approached by the U.S. military to pilot real drones in Pakistan (The drones are in Pakistan. Arlo would man them from New Mexico.) Because he is ranked number one world-wide in the video game "Drone Pilot," the military wants Arlo to work for them, to help locate the most powerful terrorist in the world. Only it might lead to the terrorist's death. And who knows if there might be casualties in the process. Wesselhoeft compares Arlo to George Harrison – quiet, spiritual and escapist – and besides, Arlo has had it with death. Lee – who is Arlo's love interest and whose father is serving in the Army – listens to the BBC every day, tracks the war, and gets aggravated about every reported soldier's death, but Arlo reacts differently than she does. His mother's death forced him to think long and hard about the subject and he has strong and specific feelings about it:

I've thought a lot about this – how death goes down in our society, our world. What I've come to realize is that for your sanity's sake, you've got to draw a line. Because the world loves death – or, to be fair, images of death…My advice: Do not grieve. Cut yourself off from all of that. Because one real death is all a body can take. Real grief chews you up, sucks you dry, and spits you out.

Arlo's family needs money though. His father can't find a job, and his sister's medical bills are piling up. Can he find a way to pilot drones for the military and keep his conscience? When an equally risky second solution comes knocking on Arlo's door, he considers yet another way to secure his family's needs. What will he decide to do?

Perhaps the most incredible thing that Wesselheoft creates with Dirt Bikes is a sense of the way we are all connected. Not just humans to humans – but humans to all living things and humans to landscape. Wesselhoeft portrays this in an authentic way. Arlo's teacher once asks Lee to explain Ralph Waldo Emerson's "The Over-Soul", a famous essay he wrote in 1841, that explores the idea (among others) that the souls of all people, creatures and the landscape are connected. "Each of us is a river," Lee says. "Like maybe I'm the Cimarron and Lobo's the Rio Loco and Arlo's the Rio Grande. We start out separately but then we flow into the Gulf of Mexico and are no longer individuals. We're part of something bigger. That's like the oversoul." Arlo believes in this connection with every bone in his body. Arlo says of his buddies as they sky-dive from a plane: "We would never hold hands like this on the ground. But in the air, brotherhood is natural." He says of the pregnant mares he and his family take care of: "In some ways, being trusted by the mares is the most important thing in my life." And, ultimately, when Arlo jumps his bike: "The wind rushes up. 'Where ya been?' it seems to say. Like its been waiting all this time. The brother they never told me about." Page after page after page, Wesselhoeft offers gems like these.

He understands the power of stories. He believes we need them "to learn how to live and to understand who we are." And he knows how to write to achieve this power. Through Arlo, I felt that place of recent grief; a swirling of emotion, like standing on the edge of that New Mexico mesa and feeling the wind blow tough and hard in every direction. Wesselhoeft quotes Walt Whitman when he talks about grief: "Every moment of light and dark is a miracle." This is how Dirt Bikes, Drones and Other Ways to Fly reads. Like a series of small miracles.

Reviewed by Tamara Smith

This review was originally published in June 2014, and has been updated for the September 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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