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THE LONGEST NIGHT by Helen Engelhardt Kirkus Star


A Personal History of Pan Am 103

by Helen Engelhardt

Pub Date: June 1st, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-9851138-5-8
Publisher: Midsummer Sound Company, LLC

In her debut memoir, Engelhardt writes about losing her husband, Tony Hawkins, who was on Pan Am Flight 103 that was blown out of the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland, in the 1988 terrorist attack.

Hawkins was returning home to Brooklyn after a short visit to his native England. He was 57 and left behind his wife, Helen, and their son, Alan, who just turned 6. They’d had 16 years together; Alan was the late-life—and very precocious—child that they doted on. The book recounts that first year after Lockerbie but also looks back and recalls both the good times and the hard times. Like all marriages, theirs was not without challenges, but their love was rock-solid. And such lacerating irony: Tony was supposed to fly home a day earlier but begged an extra day to tie up loose ends. So many had stories like that to tell; others were supposed to make that flight but were saved by their “bad luck.” With other survivors, Engelhardt organized the Victims of Pan Am Flight 103 and began lobbying, marching, protesting, writing letters (and newsletters), badgering whatever powers they thought could and should do more. She became all too familiar with the media and no fan of it. Engelhardt knows how to work up drama, switching between accounts of the couple’s honeymoon in Europe and accounts of the crash 16 years later, oscillating in time between the two and thus accentuating the horror. Engelhardt’s quietly moving poem to Tony and their love (“There Was So Much to Love”) provides the only imaginable coda to a memoir that begins with her prose poem titled “Incident at Altitude, 12/21/88,” which launches us into the nightmare. Thus is it bookended. The narrative of course brims with details both public and private. For the most part, Engelhardt writes clearly and with tight control, knowing that histrionics would cheapen her story. Such restraint makes the telling all the more powerful.

Engelhardt is an accomplished poet and writer, and there is not a single significant misstep in this moving and engrossing book.