A new book from Bill Bryson is always a cause for excitement, and this beautiful doorstopper truly delivers. Bryson’s wonderfully sly sense of humor and narrative skill are evident in this expansive look at a momentous season in U.S. history: the summer of 1927.
We meet “Slim” (Charles Lindbergh), fresh from his transatlantic flight and on the cusp of becoming a national hero, and the irrepressible Babe Ruth, who is about to have the best summer of his career. Loony politicians—William Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover—and unforgettable criminals round out the cast. What the book does best is to take these stories we already know and explain them to us again, with lots of brio and context. Sure, you think you know about Babe Ruth. But have you really considered why his ability to hit a home run was so thrilling, and how the then-established baseball rules shaped his game? You’ve heard of Charles Lindbergh, but have you heard about the dozens of others who tried to do what he did and failed miserably? Do you know why aviation was such a crazy line of work? The stories Bryson tells almost beg to be shared.
One Summer is divided into months of the summer—June, July, August and September—and each month focuses on a key figure of interest to Bryson. Honestly, I’ve never read a narrative history quite like it. The summer itself—rather than any single person or movement—is the focus of the book, and all sorts of interesting glimpses forward and backward keep the season’s significance clearly at the fore. There’s something refreshing in this approach, like touring Rome for 10 days instead of trying to cram in all of Europe.
Beyond learning unusual facts about famous people (like Calvin Coolidge’s bright red hair, or that he wasn’t a favorite with his mother-in-law), readers get something even better: a distinctive taste of the times. I’m sure people well versed in history might note that this “highlight reel” of 1927 excludes the stories of those not blessed with tremendous skill and timing—people more like us. Still, the book is a sprawl of tremendous fun that will satisfy Bryson’s fans and win him many new ones.