With his latest book, One Summer: America, 1927, Bill Bryson reminds us that he is one of the most informative and entertaining writers around.
This book is not exactly what it claims to be. It covers May through September 1927 (that’s a long summer!), and although the chapter titles suggest a focus on Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Calvin Coolidge, and the anarchists active in the summer of 1927, the book leaps forward and backward in time, taking the reader on a rollercoaster ride through all sorts of people and events: Lindbergh’s historic crossing is the cornerstone of the summer, but Bryson covers several other, mostly failed, sometimes fatal transatlantic attempts. Henry Ford—his cars, his racism, and his ludicrous attempt to create an American-style village in the Amazon rainforest. The latest Broadway shows. The birth of the “picture palace,” the advent of “talkies,” and the death of silent films. Prohibition and the rise of gangsters, and the brilliant idea of one federal prosecutor to use tax laws to bring down Al Capone. Babe Ruth’s record-setting year, as well as his relationships with Lou Gehrig, food, and women. The expansion of radio and the invention of television. The burgeoning eugenics movement. The age of prize fighters and flagpole sitters. Calvin Coolidge’s peculiar presidency and the rise of Herbert Hoover. The great Mississippi flood. Terrorist bombings. The trial and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. The financial decisions that ushered in the stock-market crash and the Great Depression. The dedication of Mount Rushmore. The creation of the first planned suburb. Charles Ponzi—the Bernie Madoff of 1927. Did I leave anything out? Bryson certainly didn’t! And he does it all with seemingly effortless prose and a sly wink.
I’ve read some reviews claiming that Bryson’s information isn’t always accurate, but there is no doubt that he got “the big picture” right. I confess that I came more for the ride than for factual precision, and this series of delightful digressions is a great ride!