“Alight: Flights of Prose” by Rachael Peckham

Reviewed by Cat Pleska

Rachael Peckham’s memoir in essays circles readers around the tragedy that befell her family. Her maternal grandfather and two uncles perished in a plane crash not far from their Clearwater, Michigan, farm in 1976. Alight: Flights of Prose (Uncollected Press, 2022) examines the long-term effects of this loss.

On a short trip to a farm fair in a neighboring state, the men, all involved in the family farm raising corn, were returning on a rainy, foggy evening. To this day, no one is certain what happened. Was it the weather, pilot error, or instrument failure? Two other men, plus the pilot also perished in the crash. The pilot did not have time to issue a mayday call. The plane went down at around 345 miles an hour. There was no fireball. The plane was driven several feet into the ground at the edge of a cornfield.

Through eyewitnesses, newspaper articles, conversations, and letters, Peckham reconstructs her family’s tragedy, while searching for the answer to the more intimate question of why and how the crash feeds her own fears and anxiety, though she was born three years after the crash.

Such a haunting event can reverberate through a family, however, for decades and beyond. As a child, Peckham imagined ghosts were waiting for her at the door of her room; she was often nervous and fearful; mentally, she tried to keep everyone safe, as if she had that kind of control. Her brother Jon seemed obsessed with airplanes and grew up to become a military and commercial pilot. It is Jon who seems to be the image of one of his deceased uncles.

Decades later, in order to cope with her own anxiety about flying, Peckham takes a flying lesson. Once in the air, she notes the line between the sky and the horizon and how confusing that line can be. Her instructor keeps asking her: “do you have control?”

Control is Peckham’s life quest as she delves deeply into her psyche to probe the event and her connection, a connection that may be actually on a molecular level. She notes, “It wasn’t that long ago that renowned psychologist Rachel Yehuda landed on a major discovery . . . that trauma can be inherited from one generation to the next.”

Another question she carries with her is how she can find the rest that loved ones seek when losing family members. She notes that “Surviving friends and family commonly describe the feeling their loved one just vanished.”  Any other type of accident may provide bodily proof, but a crash from thousands of feet in the air often leaves little to no evidence at all. Where are they?

Textual formatting contributes to a more visceral understanding of the story: one chapter is columnized, like a newspaper column. Most of the text is double spaced, as if allowing for breathing room between the impactful sentences. The witnesses’ testimony is single-spaced, as if a huge story strains to be encased on a small page. At times, there is white space between the prose, as if to allow the reader a respite at points in the powerful story.

Rachel Peckham

Peckham now lives in West Virginia. She teaches for Marshall University, the subject of another horrific plane crash in 1970 when the whole football team and many Huntington city leaders perished coming home from an away game. I can imagine Peckham hesitated upon learning of the crash that took place six years before her family’s when she moved to West Virginia to claim it as home.

Alight floats us through an extraordinary event, bringing into question how each of us would cope with the vanishing of family, the questions that arise, the unknowing. Peckham shares this story perhaps, not as a guide, but as an assurance, that despite the heart-breaking loss, we can hold ourselves and our loved ones aloft with stories that are meaningful and full, like this one.

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