2013; 456 pages. Full Title : One Summer – America, 1927. New Author? : No. Genre : Non-Fiction; American History. Overall Rating : 8½*/10.
Hey, do you remember what all went down during the summer of 1927?
Well, that was a bit before my time. But as a baseball buff, I do recall that the 1927 New York Yankees kicked butt that whole season, with Babe Ruth hitting 60 home runs and Lou Gehrig slugging almost as many.
And upon further reflection, I think that was the year Charles Lindbergh made the first nonstop, transatlantic flight, going from New York to Paris, and all by hiself to boot. But that’s about all I can come up with.
Well, Bill Bryson has dug up all sorts of other newsworthy events that happened in America that summer. Some of them were world-changers, others made a brief splash in the newspapers, then faded quickly from public memory.
But all of them were important to someone, and, when written about with Bryson's deft pen, are fascinating to read about.
What’s To Like...
The title tells you everything you need to know about the book: One Summer – America 1927 is all about what made the headlines across the country during a busy time in our nation's history. There are gruesome murders, historical flights, memorable sports events, idiotic regulations (Prohibition), foolish business adventures, and many more. Bill Bryson divides the book up into 30 chapters (plus a prologue and epilogue), and clumps them loosely into five main sections that focus on the bigger stories : “The Kid” (Lindbergh), “The Babe” (Ruth), "The President" (Calvin Coolidge), "The Anarchists" (Sacco and Vanzetti), and the catch-all “Summer’s End”.
The topics in the chapters jump around a bit, which keeps thing fresh. Bryson’s research is deep, fascinating, and meticulously detailed. Almost every character encountered in the book has their own idiosyncrasies (aka, skeletons in the closet), and the “dirt” Bryson reveals will keep you turning the pages. The last chapter in the book, the Epilogue, wraps things up nicely, and is particularly moving.
The major storylines are of course interesting, but I especially enjoyed reading about events that have long disappeared into the mists or conveniently covered up. To wit:
Henry Ford’s insane attempt to build a company community in the jungles of Brazil (“Fordlandia”).
The US government deliberately poisoning its citizens via industrial alcohol. If you died from drinking it, well, you got what you deserved.
Wayne Bidwell Wheeler’s zealous and insane efforts to develop the Prohibition movement.
The origin of hot dogs.
The eccentric and rich Van Sweringen brothers.
The forcible sterilization of 60,000 Americans deemed to be sub-human.
The cultural silliness of flagpole-sitting.
The start of the sculpting of Mount Rushmore.
The rise of the Age of Radio, and the dawning of the Age of Television.
The book is well-formatted, with an Index, a “Further Reading” section, and some way-kewl photographs. As always, Bryson’s writing, wit, and attention to minutiae will hold your interest throughout.
Kewlest New Word ...
Farrago (n.) : a confused mixture; hodgepodge
Others : Swart (adj,; archaic)
In desperation, lawmakers tried to legislate probity. In Oshkosh, Wisconsin, a local law made it an offense for dancing partners to gaze into each other’s eyes. In Utah, the state legislature considered sending women to prison – not fining them, but imprisoning them – if their skirts showed more than three inches of leg above the ankle. In Seattle, a group called the Clean Books League even tried to get banned the travel books of the adventurer Richard Halliburton on the grounds that they “excited to wanderlust.” (pg. 70)
The plot of Rio Rita was interestingly improbable. Set in Mexico and Texas, it involved an Irish American singer named Rio Rita, a Texas Ranger traveling incognito while looking for a bandit named Kinkajou (who may or may not have been Rita’s brother), a bigamous soap salesman named Chick Bean, and a character identified only as Montezuma’s Daughter. These characters and some others of equal implausibility engaged in a series of amusing misunderstandings interrupted at intervals by songs that had little or nothing to do with the action that preceded or followed. A cast of 131 and a full orchestra provided a great deal of happy noise and spectacle, if not always an abundance of sense. (pg. 86)
“As an author Lindbergh is the world’s foremost aviator’.” (pg. 229 )
As fascinating as One Summer – America, 1927 was, it was a slow read for me, mostly because I’m a history buff, and I didn’t want to gloss over any of the details. But it was also slow because, outside of a couple grisly murders and executions, there’s not a lot of “action”. This of course, is something Bill Bryson had no control over. America was in between World Wars, and for the moment everyone was making money on the stock market.
I’ve read a number of Bill Bryson’s Travelogue books, but I had never tackled any of his History-themed efforts. OS-A1927 was every bit as good as books like A Walk In The Woods (reviewed here), and I may have to broaden my Bryson reads.
8½ Stars. Subtract 1 star if you’re into hero-worship. Bryson has never been one to cover up the warts of our sacrosanct historical figures.