5/19/2014

Book Look - One Summer: America 1927, by Bill Bryson


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times .... okay, so 1927 America may not have achieved either of these extremes, but Bill Bryson's entertaining, informative, unexpectedly even-handed stroll through the events of 1927 is a timely reminder that those who wish to restore our country to the "good old days" are either ill-informed or deliberately deceiving.

True, 1927 was a year that celebrated many of the things that we Americans celebrate about ourselves and our heritage: "Lucky Lindbergh" courageously conquered the Atlantic crossing; Hollywood released the first talkie blockbuster, The Jazz Singer; Dempsey & Tunney staged what may have been the greatest "boxing exhibition" of all times; a teenager plowing a field suddenly came up with the inspiration for the technology that would make television possible; the U.S. stock market soared, due in no small measure to American entrepreneurship and ingenuity; and Babe Ruth, a big-hearted orphan from Jersey, hit an almost unimaginable 60 home runs.

But it was also the year that Al Capone reigned supreme in Chicago, backed up by Tommy-gun armed hoodlums; thousands of people died or were rendered homeless by unprecedented flooding in the Mississippi valley; anarchists bombed the homes of politicians and judges; a disturbed public employee set off a bomb in a school, killing 38 children - still the deadliest school disaster in U.S. history; a group of secretive bankers made and implemented a decision that would make the Great Depression inevitable; and the KKK staged a major resurgence on the backs of self-aggrandizing eugenicists who wrote best-selling books about the dire need to "cleanse" the US of undesirables such as criminals, the mentally feeble, immigrants, blacks, and Jews.

Admit I'm not the biggest fan of some of Bryson's other works, but I found this engrossing. It helps that he made some good editorial decisions along the way, such as giving himself permission to temporarily depart the confines of 1927 long enough to place the events of the year in the context of what had come before and what would follow. Thanks to this, what could have felt like a collection of loosely related anecdotes - sepia-tinted postcards from a "simpler time" - is transformed into something a lot more narratively complex, morally ambiguous, and thought-provoking.

By all means enjoy the opportunity Bryson provides to celebrate our country in all its over-eager, quirky glory (what kind of country makes pole-sitting a thing?); but don't pick this up unless you're also prepared to be reminded of the fact that our country's history is a whole lot more socially and morally complex than some conservative narratives would have us believe.