Book Review: One Summer: America 1927

By Bill Bryson

We all have visions of America in the 1920s; flappers, Al Capone, prohibition. They were a time of opportunity, wealth and optimism, coming before the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. They were also a period of innovation in technology, shocking political views and striking sporting achievements. It is simply one period of 3-4 months, the Summer of 1927, which are the focus of Bill Bryson’s charming book.

RRP: £20.00
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication Date:  2013
ISBN: 978-0385608282

Bryson brings us the more famous events from this period, most notably, as shown on the alluring art deco cover (I always enjoy a good book jacket), the flight of Charles Lindbergh across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St Louis. This story is fascinating not so much for the story of Lindbergh himself, who frankly appears to have been a fairly morose and shy character, totally unprepared for the universal fame and adulation which awaited him post-flight; instead, it is the story of all the other amateur and professional aviators, investors and enthusiasts around the world as well as in America, who were competing for the Orteig Prize, as Lindbergh was. Bryson introduces a catalogue of unfortunate accidents, excessive egos and a surprising number of men and women who set off on a flight across an ocean, never to be heard of again. It is these stories, which give a context to the more famous Lindbergh tale, which are the most compelling.

Other events which Bryson covers are numerous and diverse; the great 1927 baseball season of Babe Ruth, who hit more home runs than any other player in history; the beginning of the end for Al Capone; the introduction of the talking pictures into American Cinema; the possible mistrial of 2 Italian Fascists, and the ongoing problems with the social experiment which was Prohibition. 

As one has come to expect from this new brand of Bryson book, there are funny elements balanced with more thoughtful moments. One cannot read about the flirtation with eugenics which occurred in America’s academic and conservative circles, and their legal achievements in sterilising those they considered too imbecilic to be allowed to breed, without a sense of horror and sadness. Equally, the knowledge that the American government deliberately poisoned some of its citizens by denaturing industrial alcohol – which was then misappropriated to make bootleg drinks – with poisons such as strychnine, as a ‘moral lesson’, is difficult to swallow.

Bryson incorporates all his story elements into a flowing narrative, ostensibly in chapters covering different months, but actually with a broader sense of time. He provides context which allows the reader to understand where the characters have come from, and where they are going into the years beyond the book’s focus.

Bryson’s book is thoughtful, entertaining and broad without ever feeling scattered. Babe Ruth was once described by a team mate as ‘a constant source of joy’; Bryson’s book deserves no less a tagline.

By Guest Reviewer: Martha Stoneham