As the eldest of eleven children in small-town New Jersey, Rinker and Kern Buck were in possession of a few things: absurdly cool names, a love of flying, and a dream of adventure. So, they did what any young, red-blooded American boys would do: they restored an old Piper Cub plane and flew it across the country. Rinker, fifteen and outgoing, was the navigator. Kern, seventeen and introverted, was the pilot. Their five-day flight from their home in New Jersey to the California coast in 1966 earned them the honor of being the youngest aviators to fly across the continental United States.
Flight of Passage, Rinker’s memoir about his airborne voyage, is as good as any adventure story. Recalling both Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Into the Wild, Rinker and Kern sleep under the plane’s wings at night, consort with retired pilots, and inadvertently spend the night in a brothel. As they gain their wings over the changing American landscape, the brothers learn that their conflicting personalities bind them together rather than tear them apart.
Flight of Passage also focuses on the profound impact that fathers can have on their sons. Tom Buck, a former pilot raised in Depression-era Pennsylvania who found a successful career in magazine publishing, was a constant source of both inspiration and frustration for his sons. An alcoholic who lost a leg in a plane crash, he put a great deal of pressure on his sons, but the genuine love and affection he felt for them is undeniable. In the opening pages of the book, Rinker writes, “It wasn’t records or fame we were after. What we were really doing was proving ourselves to my father.” It is this kind of honest look at family dynamics and human connection—alongside Buck’s trademark humor and a few expletives—that elevate Flight of Passage from a traditional, event-specific memoir to a master class on life.
This story captivated me in a way that I hadn’t experienced since sitting down with Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s blockbuster memoir of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Just like with Strayed, you know that Rinker and Kern will make it home safe and sound, but their plane’s turbulent and frightening journey through a dust storm makes you grit your teeth, and you find yourself bracing for impact as the treacherous Rockies begin to materialize over the horizon.
What also shines through is the feeling of being transported not only by the wonder of flight but by time as well. The America of Flight of Passage is within living memory, but it’s a time of no cell phones, no texting, no Internet—a time when, you know, parents let their teenaged sons fly a plane across the country alone. Whether Rinker is mooning an old woman, T-bird style, Kern is desperately trying to live up to the postwar standard of stability and success, or their mother is taking a page out of “the Rose Kennedy school of childrearing,” the book is soaked to the core in a kind of nostalgia that’s equal parts endearing and thought-provoking. As the Bucks touch down on solid ground, we realize that a timeless and important lesson has been taught here: adventure awaits those who are brave enough to pursue it. We hear from countless critics and commentators that we should stop Instagramming the world and start exploring it. With a narrator as genuine and talented as Rinker Buck, we might just finally be inspired enough to do it.
Julianna Haubner works in the Editorial Department at Simon & Schuster. You can follow her on Twitter @jhaubner2.