Book review: One Summer- America 1927 (Bill Bryson 2013)

Rating: 5/5

In One Summer, I learned a ton about a period I didn’t care about. I care now. I’m from St. Louis, and I didn’t care about The Spirit of St. Louis or Lindbergh. Last week, I saw his plane in the Smithsonian. I tried to imagine flying for 33 hours with a single engine, a pen and paper to chart my course, protected from the elements by canvas. I tried to imagine landing in Paris, the field mobbed with people, with a plane without any forward-facing windows. Apparently it was beyond the imagining of even his contemporaries–they favored multi-engine planes with multi-man crews. In that tiny plane, Lindbergh flew better than any of them, and his flight ignited an aeronautic industry in the US which had badly languished.

One Summer centers around the summer of 1927, the summer of Lindberg’s transatlantic flight, of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig’s home run battle, of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, and more. The summer of ’27 is the primary focus, but Bryson weaves in details from decades before and after, covering Warren Harding’s mega-corruption, Herbert Hoover’s relentless self-promotion, and Henry Ford’s remarkable stupidity and racism.

One Summer does what I wish my history classes would have– it gives not just the facts and the names, but a sense of the 1920s versus today. In one 20s baseball double-header, the first game lasted 50 minutes, and the second lasted an hour and 15 minutes. As a lifelong fan of baseball, I had no idea that baseball even could be so brief. Neither did any of my friends. I was shocked. On one hand, the 20’s reveled in public gatherings and the wonder of radio broadcasting Lindbergh’s return. On another, they suffered the anxiety of mass immigration, anarchist bombings, and prohibition.  In short, One Summer relates the wonder of a world rapidly transitioning from an isolated one to an interconnected one.

I can’t imagine who I wouldn’t recommend this book to. It’s light enough to fly by, but full of unconsidered things. In a world of ISIS and shitty politics and Mexican immigration, it’s somehow relieving that the ’20s dealt with Italian anarchists, the worthless Harding administration, and eastern European immigration. Those who don’t remember the past may or may not be doomed to repeat it, but remembering the past surely puts the present in context.

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