One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson
Published: October 1st 2013 by Doubleday
Format/Source: Advanced Reading Copy from Book Expo America 2013
Genre: Nonfiction, history
In One Summer Bill Bryson, one of our greatest and most beloved nonfiction writers, transports readers on a journey back to one amazing season in American life.
The summer of 1927 began with one of the signature events of the twentieth century: on May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first man to cross the Atlantic by plane nonstop, and when he landed in Le Bourget airfield near Paris, he ignited an explosion of worldwide rapture and instantly became the most famous person on the planet. Meanwhile, the titanically talented Babe Ruth was beginning his assault on the home run record, which would culminate on September 30 with his sixtieth blast, one of the most resonant and durable records in sports history. In between those dates a Queens housewife named Ruth Snyder and her corset-salesman lover garroted her husband, leading to a murder trial that became a huge tabloid sensation. Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly sat atop a flagpole in Newark, New Jersey, for twelve days—a new record. The American South was clobbered by unprecedented rain and by flooding of the Mississippi basin, a great human disaster, the relief efforts for which were guided by the uncannily able and insufferably pompous Herbert Hoover. Calvin Coolidge interrupted an already leisurely presidency for an even more relaxing three-month vacation in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The gangster Al Capone tightened his grip on the illegal booze business through a gaudy and murderous reign of terror and municipal corruption. The first true “talking picture,” Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, was filmed and forever changed the motion picture industry. The four most powerful central bankers on earth met in secret session on a Long Island estate and made a fateful decision that virtually guaranteed a future crash and depression.
All this and much, much more transpired in that epochal summer of 1927, and Bill Bryson captures its outsized personalities, exciting events, and occasional just plain weirdness with his trademark vividness, eye for telling detail, and delicious humor. In that year America stepped out onto the world stage as the main event, and One Summer transforms it all into narrative nonfiction of the highest order.
So many facts! I’ll be happy if I remember just a few to brag about my intelligence to others.
This wasn’t a dry nonfiction book regurgitating facts in a loosely connected way, making the reader scramble for an accurate timeline. Bill Bryson writes in a voice that is both factual as well as unique, making far less of a textbook and more of an interesting documentary.
I discovered this book at the 2013 Book Expo America. I was so lucky to get the Advanced Reading Copy signed by Mr. Bryson. It had not even been a year since I first read one of his books and was likely in a bit of a fangirl state. This book seemed like everything I would enjoy: American history, the Roaring Twenties, and covering a wide range of subjects therein.
My assumptions weren’t wrong and I did really enjoy learning not just about early aviation, but also Babe Ruth, the case that inspired “Double Indemnity”, the great floods of the Mississippi, anarchists, Al Capone…the subject matter really only continues. The book was tied together by all the things that happened in the summer of 1927.
I’ve seen some reviewers complain that sometimes Bryson would cover things that happened before or after that summer, but that didn’t bother me at all. It was necessary to properly understand the facts.
I will say, that I was grew more disappointed by the overwhelming time spent on aviation and baseball versus other matters. I understand why those two subjects were given additional attention, but I preferred the parts when he would start delving into a new area. I particularly appreciated how he would tie together unrelated facts, to bring them together into a recognizable timeline or draw attention to how much was really going on at once.
While I doubt I’ll be able to retain too much of what I learned while reading this book, I would definitely recommend it for anyone, even those who don’t usually read nonfiction.