History buffs will no doubt immediately understand the significance of the title of Bill Bryson’s latest best-seller, “One Summer: America, 1927” (Doubleday, 2013). The rest of us have the privilege of discovering the many amazing events that unfolded in that seminal year and decade.
“One Summer” reminds me – in scope if not subject matter – of an earlier Bryson book, “At Home: A Short History of Private Life” (Doubleday, 2010): Anyone who undertakes either nonfiction historical account will learn something. For example, readers may know about famed aviator Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo transatlantic flight in May 1927, but I’m willing to bet that very few people know the names or facts behind the large number of pilots who lost their lives both before and after Lindbergh’s flight in an attempt to set records of their own.
Bryson opens “One Summer” by setting the stage: World War I was in the past but not forgotten, with much of Europe badly damaged and mired in poverty in the 1920s. America, however, was quite prosperous. The stock market was booming and making millionaires overnight, the advent of installment-plan purchases resulted in households awash in consumer goods, and Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were drawing record crowds at baseball fields. There was a general feeling of excitement and optimism in the air.
After the historical overview, Bryson introduces his main characters: Lindbergh, Ruth, U.S. President Calvin Coolidge and, finally, a group of anarchists who advocated violence against an oppressive government.
Bryson does more than describe these well-known figures – he portrays in great detail the motivations of these men and movements, relaying particulars about the people who moved in similar orbits at the time. Readers learn about Lindbergh, but also about other talented and/or eccentric aviators, such as Francesco de Pinedo and Charles Levine. Ruth and Gehrig figure prominently in Bryson’s account of how the national sport of baseball has evolved in the intervening years. Coolidge is shown as a taciturn figure, but also oddly likeable and surprisingly popular with the public.
Particularly interesting is a section chronicling the earliest attempts at broadcasting images and sounds that would ultimately result in movies and television. Bryson documents the books and plays popular at the time, including the blockbuster musical “Show Boat,” which revolutionized theater. The book also includes information on the origins of Mount Rushmore and why its subsequent success proved problematic, as well as how Prohibition wreaked havoc on the U.S.
“One Summer” is a very rich book that puts many famous and some not-so-famous people and events into context. It is somewhat long at more than 400 pages, so book clubs that select it should allow their members plenty of time to finish.
Leslie Ashmore is a longtime Mountain View resident who belongs to two book clubs.