One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson

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Reviewed by Harriet Devine

If I were to make a list of things I probably wouldn’t want to read a book about, aeroplanes, cars, baseball and finance would be somewhere near the top. But if that book was by Bill Bryson, I’d think again, and it was, and I did. The man has done it again – managed to be incredibly informative and hugely entertaining at the same time. Wonderful stuff.

Why 1927, you may be asking? Well, because a number of remarkable things happened in that year. And because, at the end of it, for Americans, there was also the gratifying novelty of coming first at something. It is a little hard to imagine now, but Americans in the 1920s had grown up in a world in which most of the most important things happened in Europe. Now suddenly America was dominant in nearly every field – in popular culture, finance and banking and military might, invention and technology. The centre of gravity for the planet was moving to the other side of the world…

Indeed, 1927 was a remarkable year in all sorts of ways. Bryson takes us through it month by month, starting in May when, at the end of month that had seen a notorious and gruesome murder trial, Charles Lindbergh (left), a young man of twenty- five, became the first person to fly the Atlantic. What’s more, he did so in a plane which was ‘little more than a flying fuel tank’. He flew alone, with a packet of five ham and chicken sandwiches and two bottles of water. He had a map, which he had to read himself, with the stick that drove the plane held between his knees, but in fact it wasn’t a great deal of use as he couldn’t see out of the front of the plane. Amazingly enough, he managed to land at Le Bourget airport in Paris just over 33 hours later, and became a national hero of a magnitude never before known.

Lindbergh was not the only national hero of that year – there was also Babe Ruth, the great baseball player, who had been thought to be over the hill but made an amazing comeback. That summer also saw the birth of television (invented by someone whose name has somehow been more or less erased from the record books), and of talking pictures. Then there was the massive flood that covered most of the mid-West, the horrifying bombing of a school in Michigan, killing 37 children and 7 teachers, and the peak of Chicago’s reign of terror under the apparently invincible Al Capone. It was also the year when Henry Ford’s supremacy in car manufacture came to an end, and when the seeds of the Wall Street crash of 1929 were sown by a conglomerate of powerful bankers, and much more besides.

It was also an era when almost everyone seems to have been corrupt. The entire city of Chicago was apparently in the pay of Capone, judges and politicians could be bribed, and people were frequently executed for crimes they probably didn’t commit. And if they weren’t corrupt, they were almost bound to be racist. Blacks, Jews, Italians and Irish were hated in varying degrees, generally extremely severe. Then there was eugenics, which had several proponents who argued forcefully that anyone with a less than high mental age should be sterilised, or even, in one extreme case, sent to the gas chambers.

An extraordinary time to be alive, then. But what makes this book so incredibly readable – and it is a real page turner throughout its 633 pages – is that Bryson has employed his wonderful combination of research skills, wit, and love of the ridiculous, to bring alive the stories of the extraordinary, eccentric, sometimes plain crazy men who were behind all this burgeoning change, growth and development. There was the President, Calvin Coolidge, who only worked four hours a day and spent most of the summer dressed in full cowboy regalia on his ranch. There were the numerous and frequently unprepared airmen who tried unsuccessfully to beat Lindbergh’s record, many of whom disappeared into the ocean or the jungle, never to be seen again. There was the leader of the very high profile Ku Klux Klan, whose sudden downfall – the result of the horrific attack on a young woman he had asked out for a date – caused the organisation to ‘retreat into the shadows of American life’. And, of course, there was Lindbergh, after whom whole towns and mountains, not to mention hundreds of children, had been named, who proved to be an unapologetic admirer of Adolf Hitler, and who finally fell from grace in WW2, a result of making a speech in which he argued that America and England should join together with Germany.

So, I know a great deal more about America after reading this book, but I’ve also got a head full of the most astonishing, amusing, sometimes horrifying stories about some of the major players. Highly recommended.

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Harriet is one of the Shiny editors.

Bill Bryson, One Summer: America 1927 (Doubleday, 2013), 672 pp.

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