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One Summer: America 1927 / Bill Bryson

November 15, 2013

I’m a Bryson fan…his Short History of Nearly Everything is never far out of reach, and Thunderbolt Kid is one of the funniest, most whimsical things I’ve ever read. So I seized One Summer eagerly, anticipating a rare feast of Brysonesque trivia, delivered in his usual matey style.

One SummerIt’s a feast indeed – I was delighted by Bryson’s take on the USA at the height of the Roaring Twenties, a decade that encapsulated and magnified all the contradictions of America. One Summer is a 500–page cascade of entertaining, intriguing, head-scratching and jaw-dropping nuggets.

Bryson has a way of digging out captivating and obscure particulars on any given subject, favourable and unfavourable, thereby creating balance, but more importantly, entertainment. Any author taking on even five months of such an epically eventful year is an act of bravado, but Bryson goes further, bringing us plenty of background and context to his main subjects. These include baseball, aviation, high finance and associated scandals, prohibition and organised crime, politics/scandals, domestic terrorism, boxing, television, eugenics and race policy, and flagpole–sitting…but there is so much more.

Here are a few little nuggets to tempt you:

  • Meet a virginal young man named Charles Lindbergh, whose idea of a good joke was to fool a friend into drinking kerosene. Lindbergh packed his lanky limbs into his flimsy, cramped Spirit of St Louis with a packed lunch, and won the race to be first to fly across the Atlantic. He became the most famous man on the planet, which ruined his life.
  • Four powerful international bankers gathered on Long Island that summer. One of these men subsequently became the chief banker for the Nazis. Another was an English neurotic who believed he could walk through walls, and whose death was suspected to have been caused by a cow. At their meetings, these four men instituted policy which led to the Great Depression.
  • While this odd quartet were laying the groundwork for the Wall St Crash, President Coolidge, surely the laziest president in American history, was on a three-month vacation, traipsing about Dakota in a ludicrous cowboy costume. Coolidge didn’t run for a second term, possibly because he couldn’t be bothered, but more likely because he could see the Great Depression approaching, and left the mess for the next guy.
  • One last example of Bryson’s fascinating trivia: the era’s champion flagpole–sitter was Shipwreck Kelly, who sat on a bar-stool–sized seat attached to the top of a flagpole, preferably atop some high building. Huge crowds gathered to watch him. Kelly, “The Luckiest Fool Alive,” once perched continuously on a flagpole for 49 days without a break. He would occasionally stand up to stretch and take a bow, which would bring a roar from the hopeful crowd. He ate and shaved up there, smoking four packs of cigarettes per day. (Bryson briefly speculates how Kelly dealt with bodily functions, but I won’t spoil that for you). Kelly was completely unconstrained, and would sleep by locking his ankles around the flagpole and inserting his thumbs into holes drilled in the sides of his seat.

One Summer: America 1927 is a sprawling tour de force from Bill Bryson – first class, highly recommended. Reserve it.

Reviewed by Keith

 

Another review (by Larry Gordon, October 2014)

If you are at all interested in social history, particularly of the 20th century, you will thoroughly enjoy this book. The author of many excellent best sellers, Mr Bryson has chosen to write about what was going on in his home country during the months of May to September in 1927.

He covers, in interesting detail, the strange characters and remarkable achievement of young Charles Lindbergh and other co-incident attempts to fly the Atlantic; the strange character and activity of Henry Ford and the extraordinary career of Baseball’s greatest player ‘Babe Ruth’; the introduction of television, radio and the talking movies and some of the weird and wonderful people involved in these media. He looks into two or three major trials, one of murder and the infamous Sacco and Vangetti trial – Italian immigrants who were activists and were implicated in a robbery and murder. Along the way, we meet the man who carved the sculptured heads of the U.S Presidents on Mount Rushmore and the man who perfected the electric chair and dispatched many criminals by its use; President Calvin Coolidge, primarily famous for doing practically nothing during his term in office and the woman lawyer who found a way of bringing down the corrupt but almost untouchable Al Capone; the man after whom the ‘Ponzi’ scheme of ruining would-be investors was named, of whom it could be said ‘ you can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time but you can’t fool all the people all of the time; the great boxers Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney (with a brief mention of Kiwi boxer Tom Heeny); Great tennis player Bill Tilden; humourless President Herbert Hoover (from whom the dam gets its name) and so many more.

This is social history for the ordinary reader and if most of the names I have listed ring any bells, loud or faint and if, like me, the goings-on in 1927 were not distant history but the daily news of not many years distant, I am sure you will find Bill Bryson’s account of that action packed summer well worth your time and attention.

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From → Non-Fiction, Review

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