So, there’s this teacher (Prof. William Waterman Sherman) in San Francisco, 1883. Been at it for 30+ years and is growing tired of his students’ antics (glue on his chair, etc.). Decides to retire to a balloon, at the mercy of the winds, just him and his books, for a year. Peace and solitude at last.
Until he finds himself marooned on Krakatoa. We know the mountain is about to wow the universe (explosion heard nearly 2000 miles away, tsunamis traveling as far as Africa, global cooling from the dust clouds, 1000s dead, etc.*), but the good Professor doesn’t. Nor do the people living on the island. It’s lucky for Prof. Sherman that the islanders have an escape plan, which also involves balloons.
du Bois arranges his tale so that we come in at the end. Prof. Sherman has just been pulled from wreckage in the Atlantic and taken to NYC to recover. But, everyone wonders, how did a man who took off over the Pacific end up wrecked in the Atlantic? The Professor won’t tell. He’s saving his story for the Western American Explorers’ Club in SF.
When Sherman finally arrives in SF, to great acclaim, he’s whisked to the Club and begins his tale — 40 pages into this short, delightful book. It’s an adventure story set in a utopian world. As Candide discovers in El Dorado, Peachey Carnehan in Kafiristan, and Hugh Conway in Shangri-La, it isn’t always easy to live in Utopia, but it’s even more difficult to escape.
Interestingly, as du Bois explains in an Author’s Note, The Twenty-One Balloons bears a great similarity to F. Scott Fitgerald’s story, “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.” I’d say also to Candide. There’s something about “streets paved with jewels” that adds that dollop of relish to a tasty story.
*Charles Fort, that odd-ball collector of inexplicable events, has his own idea of what actually happened:
It is my expression that the explosion of Krakatoa was stimulated by, or was a reaction to, an eruption in a land of stars that is not enormously far away. Afterglows that were seen after August 26th were attributed to Krakatoa — ¶That the preceding afterglows and the fall of ashes were of materials that drifted to this earth, from an eruption somewhere else, passing over a distance that cannot be considered vast, in a few weeks, or a few days — ¶And that the light of a volcanic eruption somewhere in the sky was seen by people of this earth.
I think I want to put this guy into one of my novels.