Bill Bryson used to be a much-loved American writer of humorous travel books like A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, but his interests have broadened and he has written about subjects like history, the English language and science. At Home: A Short History of Private Life (2010) is an example.
In One Summer, Bryson uses the momentous events of the summer of 1927 to introduce us to America in the 1920s. He argues that Lindbergh's Atlantic crossing, Babe Ruth's home run record and the advent of talkies with The Jazz Singer, and many more, for the first time attracted the serious attention of the outside world, and marked "...the moment when America discovered its own importance."
At first glance the reader may wonder why he is tackling events most people are so familiar with. What could be said that would be new?
But Bryson can always find something new to say and can make anything, even the Australian outback, seem fascinating. There are dozens of books about Lindbergh, for example, starting with We, the book the flyer himself wrote soon after his Atlantic crossing right up to recent biographies like Lindbergh by A. Scott Berg (2013) and Atlantic Fever: Lindbergh, his Competitors and the Race to Cross the Atlantic by Joe Jackson (2012).
But by weaving the young Minnesotan's story together with those of the other figures covered in the book, Bryson puts his story in the broader context of U.S. history. With Lindbergh, as with all the other figures, Bryson gives a complete biography emphasizing the effect Lindbergh's achievement and later activities had on American social and political history.
While everyone knows who Babe Ruth was and that he was a great hitter, Bryson jumps off from Ruth's record breaking 1927 season to give us a history of the New York Yankees and baseball in the 1920s, as well as portraits of other players like Lou Gehrig.
Herbert Hoover, who would soon be president, is also given star treatment. By 1927 he was a wealthy man, a cabinet member and famous for his work feeding and housing many thousands of Belgian refugees during the First World War.
Hoover was put in charge of caring for the millions of victims of the great Mississippi flood of that year. Bryson gives a rather critical account of his work.
Gangster Al Capone, the boxer Jack Dempsey, Calvin Coolidge and Henry Ford are all introduced in some detail and their activities during the summer are used to illustrate aspects of their careers. At the end of the book we are told what eventually became of all these people -- satisfying information for the reader.
Bryson sometimes gets sidetracked. The ghastly career of eugenicist Henry M. Laughlin, who was responsible for the sterilization of tens of thousands of mentally handicapped Americans, and the details of the "Sash Weight Murder Case," might have been left out. So could some of the interesting facts in the book. By the time, on page 405, we are informed the Thompson machine gun was named after Gen. John Teliaferro Thompson, we no longer really care.
But Bryson can be forgiven a few lapses. One Summer is a delightful entertainment that gives the reader a good grounding in the nature and significance of the 1920s in America.
Jim Blanchard is a librarian at the University of Manitoba and the author of four books on Winnipeg history.