On the morning of December 22, 1988, Ken Dornstein glanced at a newspaper, noting the front-page story --- the crash of Pan Am Flight 103 in Lockerbie, Scotland --- with detached interest. "News is just news to those not immediately affected," he writes in THE BOY WHO FELL OUT OF THE SKY, "and my brother was not supposed to fly until later in the week." That afternoon, a phone call from Pan Am made the media headlines personal. Ken's brother, David, had left London several days earlier than planned and was on board Flight 103. There were no survivors in what was later determined to be a terrorist bombing.
A sophomore at Brown University (aspiring writer David's alma mater) at the time of his brother's death, Ken tried to move on with his life. As much as he shrouded himself in a cloak of denial, though, it was impossible to separate himself from what had happened to his revered older brother. The tragedy that took David's life began --- whether Ken was willing to admit it or not --- to define his life.
After graduating from Brown, Ken accepted a job with a small private investigation firm in Los Angeles. This career track appealed to him because of "one very attractive idea: that people might seem dead and gone, but with some perseverance, clever tricks, and simple luck they might be found alive somewhere…. If I wasn't yet ready to occupy myself with the matter of missing David, I could invest myself in a story of him gone missing."
It would be eight years before Ken was able to fully confront the matter of missing David. He then journeyed to Lockerbie, began contacting David's friends, and delved into his brother's journals and notebooks. David had written voraciously, filling notebook after notebook with his writing. A charismatic yet troubled young man, he was obsessed by the thought of achieving literary fame but unable to produce even a single finished work. In THE BOY WHO FELL OUT OF THE SKY, Ken weaves in excerpts from David's journals, some of which eerily surmise that an early death might bring the fame that eluded him in life. David's vision of his literary breakthrough was "a fictional autobiography. The idea? An unknown young writer dies in a plane crash leaving behind lots of notebooks and bits of stories, and the narrator sets out to piece it all together into a story of the unknown writer's life."
Instead it's Ken who sets out to piece together David's life, discovering who David was aside from being his older brother. In the process of delving into the past, Ken uncovers a secret that explains much of David's inner turmoil and depression. As he learns more about his brother, falls in love (with David's former girlfriend, whom he eventually marries), and attends the trial of the Libyan nationals responsible for the bombing, Ken comes to realize that his quest is as much about seeking closure as it is an effort to remember David.
THE BOY WHO FELL OUT OF THE SKY is heartbreaking, a portrait of grief and a reminder that a life touched by tragedy is forever changed. It's also a poignantly honest and eloquently written tribute to a vibrant young man whose life (and those of many others) was stolen on a December night in the skies over Scotland. Ken has achieved for David what his brother did not have the chance to do and so desperately wanted: "To be remembered."
Reviewed by Shannon McKenna on June 12, 2007
The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky: A True Story