Named after the famous French balloonist Sophie Blanchard who, in 1804, was the first female to take to the skies in her own balloon and who remained a sensation until her death in 1819, the fourteen-year-old heroine of this novel has moved with her grandmother halfway across the country to live in the small town of Gilbertine. There her grandmother Aubrey, who is terminally ill with multiple sclerosis and eschews further medical treatment, wants to live in big, wide-open country where skies overhead promise adventure and happiness. Sophie herself shares this feeling.
In Gilbertine Sophie becomes close friends with two people her own age who associate with some Vietnam veterans who run a local municipal airport that offers balloon rides to paying customers. K, whose mother years ago dropped him off in Gilbertine and was never heard of again, assists the airport owner, Joseph, in setting up the equipment for the rides. He sleeps in the cockpit of an old Skyhawk in the hangar and basically makes a life for himself without making demands on anyone. Wyatt, a free spirit with multiple ear piercings, weird hairdo, and odd costuming, has a mysterious past as well with seemingly no family connections. Wyatt lives with Joseph, having been unofficially adopted by him years ago. She tends a blueberry farm nearby and spends her time baking wonderful delicacies to sell at the local diner. Sophie fits in perfectly with these new friends because she herself has an unusual background, her mother taken to the road herself, leaving Sophie behind with her grandmother. All three friends ask no questions of each other but form a strong bond.
In August the three are lazing on an abandoned tower where they have been watching a “hopper”–a girl balloonist with a homemade rig–explore the skies. Suddenly a storm comes up and the balloonist is violently thrown through the treetops to the ground. They rush to her aid and manage to get her to the local hospital, where she refuses to speak. When, despite public pleas, no one comes forward to claim the mystery hopper, Sophie, Wyatt and K decide to launch their own investigation. In doing so, Wyatt resolves a big mystery of her own, and the three friends gain a finer understanding of what constitutes a family and home.
This charming book is problem-free as far as language, sex and controversial subjects go. The story makes strong statements on quality of life in terms of medical intervention, parental abandonment, illegal immigration and the treatment of children caught up in such, and the power of society to make compassionate accommodation to those in unusual circumstances. It would be an acceptable addition to any school library.