Bill Bryson is one of our great contemporary humor writers. If you have read In a Sunburned Land, or A Walk in the Woods, or I’m a Stranger Here Myself, you know his keen ear for dialogue and his ability to describe his adventures with hilarity while dishing facts. It is this ability to deliver on the facts that makes One Summer America 1927 such a great read.
Mr. Bryson is a consummate researcher. Following his graduation from Drake College in Des Moines, he returned to Great Britain with his British bride and did a decade stint as journalist, copy editor and national news editor so he comes by this skill honestly. He loves to dig up obscure facts about the topic at hand and lay them out to marvel upon, then top them with a real zinger prefaced by “and here’s the thing…”. With Bill Bryson you learn a lot, chuckling as you go.
One Summer America, 1927 is a researcher’s book. Bryson selects the year 1927 and goes to town on it. You get a biography of Babe Ruth, of Charles Lindbergh, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. You come up to speed on the events preceding the great market crash, the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, the state of aeronautics, and the advent of ‘talkies’ (films with sound). We see Prohibition driving illegal liquor trade and Al Capone profiting as a result.
You learn that of all the aviators vying to be first to fly from New York to Paris, only the marginally funded Lindbergh could actually navigate. The Spirit of St. Louis was basically a canvas kite with a state of the art motor and 450 gallons of fuel. The plane was optimized for low fuel consumption during flight and barely made it over the power lines at the end of the runway. Due to the rake of the landing gear, Lindbergh could not see the runway for takeoff or landing and in flight had to crab the plane to see forward from the side window.
Before Babe Ruth’s entry into baseball, the most prolific home run hitter had 7 homers for the season. Baseball was played as a technical incremental game with bunts and directed hitting. Nobody swung for the fences. In 1919 the Babe himself belted 11 homers, more than any entire team in baseball. That said, he pitched for the first quarter of his career, with an ERA of 2.28 and a winning percentage of .671. His fielding average was .996, by far the best in the league and he was just warming up. He was an incredible athlete and a prodigious eater.
We find Cal Coolidge as the original do nothing president, Herbert Hoover as a humorless, tireless manager of monster projects (like funneling food into Europe to stave off food shortages following WWI). If Mr. Hoover did it, there would be a press conference so all were aware. We see Sacco and Vanzetti condemned to death because if they were not guilty of the crimes they were charged with, they were surely guilty of something. We see Al Capone brought down for tax evasion (where did all that money come from AL?).
Bryson brings it together in this fact filled delight. Like a jigsaw puzzle, facts and info snap together to complete a picture of USA circa 1927. As always, he digs out one cool detail after another, piles them up and zings you with his conclusion. Does One Summer America 1927 pass my test – did I want to keep on reading? Yes, indeed.