Reviewed by: John J. Vester
Author: Jeffrey Kluger
Format: Hardcover, paperback, Kindle
Date: August 2022
Retail Price: $26.00/$17.00/$11.99
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In Holdout, author Jeffrey Kluger has created a sweeping yet intimate tale about the destruction of the natural environment and human lives.
The story takes place in three large arenas. One is the International Space Station and the U.S. and Russian space programs. Another is Washington D.C. and its politics and media coverage. Finally, there is the Amazon jungle, under attack by an autocratic president, setting fires to drive out natives that are then rounded up and relocated.
The inciting incident of this engaging novel is the mutiny of a U.S. astronaut on the ISS. Walli Beckwith survives a life-threatening accident when a Progress servicing module crashes into the station. After her cosmonaut companions board the Soyuz lifeboat, she refuses to evacuate the station. She remains behind, alone on a crippled station; the ultimate bully pulpit.
There are not many characters in this 336 page novel; a main character in each of the three arenas and a small supporting cast. There is Vasily Zhirov, ISS station commander of the mission ended so perilously. As long as Beckwith stays on the station, Zhirov considers the mission not over, and continues to take responsibility for it. He is a sympathetic character and is held up as a role model as a solid person and cosmonaut. He and fellow ISS escapee Yulian Lebedev, take their positions at Roscosmos mission control and play large roles in protecting the troublesome U.S. astronaut.
The details of a Soyuz launch and cosmonaut recovery are depicted so as to convey a lot of information not common knowledge to the average reader. Also, the well, yet economically developed Russian characters, and their own conflicts, adds to the feeling of real life. The attitude of Roscosmos director of flight operations, Genady Bazanov, for example, adds a touch of peril for Beckwith unrelated to the mechanical problems on the ISS.
Then there is Walli Beckwith, alone on the ISS, with only one true friend (not counting Mom and Dad), Capcom Lee Jasper. Beckwith’s nickname Walli harkens back to Mercury 7 astronaut, Wally Schirra, her hero. But the name has added resonance in view of Mercury 13 would-be astronaut, Wally Funk.
Her trials and tribulations on the station may seem at times farfetched, but the events are rooted in real, documented happenings, as the author explains in the Acknowledgments.
Next, there is the U.S. president, a tragic-comic poser who constantly gets it wrong and loses the initiative through his incompetence. U.S, Attorney General, Constance Polk, at his side, though reluctantly, elucidates the many legal perils facing Beckwith when and if she returns to the ground.
Finally there is Sonia Peanut, a volunteer medical assistant at a field hospital in the Amazon jungle. While Holdout is ostensibly a book about space, it is in reality the story of Sonia and the almost genocidal attack on the “lungs of the planet.” She and her adoptive orphaned native boy, Oli, are located at the intersection of Beckwith’s mutiny and the murderous geopolitical actions of the Brazilian government. Sonia’s work puts her and Oli in real danger.
The reactions by the two mission controls, the U.S. president, the media, social media, and the public to Beckwith’s mutiny are deftly described. The spare, confident writing showcases the author’s familiarity with the subjects at hand, thanks to his years reporting for Time magazine.
When, early in the book, Beckwith’s reasons are finally revealed, it is a clear demonstration what a powerful statement she can and does make in opposition to the “Consolidation,” essentially the rape of the Amazon.
It’s all shown through the very personal stories of a few main characters. All of the settings are crystal clear through the writing, the technical details convincing, and the characters and their motivations inarguable.
Beckwith’s journey toward her goal makes this book a compulsive, and sometimes wrenching, page turner. Highly recommended.
© 2022 John J. Vester
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