Wednesday, March 5, 2014

One Summer, America 1927

In 1927 America, Prohibition is in full swing, as is Babe Ruth’s big fifty-four ounce baseball bat.  Charles Lindbergh flies across the Atlantic and inadvertently launches a celebrity cult that would rival any in the 21st century.  It was a time, as Bill Bryson says, that “[p]eacefully, by accident, and almost unnoticed, America had just taken over the world.” One Summer, America 1927 is Bryson’s meticulously-researched ode to giddy post-war, pre-Depression America.

Already having proven himself adept at social history with At Home and A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bryson works hard to set the reader right down into the world of 1927. He outlines the summer in question month by month, May to September, feeding details to the reader as if we are living in the midst of it.

Time, not theme, governs Bryson’s approach to this book.  In the section on the month of May, Bryson tells us about the murder of Albert Snyder and the subsequent arrest of his wife Ruth and her lover. We hear about them again intermittently throughout the book as they rise and fall in the public interest, usually competing with Lindbergh for press coverage, but then do not learn about their ultimate fates until the epilogue.

This time-dictated method is usually very successful, but there are places where Bryson tries to fit in too much.  He wants to lay the groundwork as well as give us the 1927 particulars.  Between pilots competing for successful Atlantic flights, or baseball players with a variety of abilities, or bombs that blow up anarchists and politicians, there are parts that are needed to be read more than once. You know; to clarify which politicians use spit-ball pitches to protest which air flights…no, wait; that’s not it. You get the idea.

How does one end a great summer? With a dose of regret, I guess. With this great big ball of momentum, the end is a bit of a fizzle. Bryson does do a good job of tying up all his loose ends--in this case, all his loose ball players, pilots and politicians--but his enthusiasm has weakened.   

I must confess; I do thoroughly enjoy Bill Bryson’s upbeat and droll writing style. At last count I’ve read nine of his books, which, for a working mother of three, that’s a miraculous number of books by any one author!  My favourite is At Home: A History of Private Life, the premise of which may sound deadly boring (except to a social historian like me), but in the hands of Bryson, any topic is transformed into high entertainment. One Summer America 1927 is no exception.

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