Bill Bryson’s One Summer – America, 1927 fits in perfectly with the rest of his collected works. That is to say, if you’re already a fan of this popular author’s inquisitive, dry wit you’ll find this examination of one summer in America’s history–a very monumental summer, it turns out–to be an enjoyable read.
Simply put, One Summer investigates the summer of 1927 with a curious, modern eye. Bryson does an admirable job looking into the different happenings of that summer, though he does certainly spend more time on the flashier events. At times I felt like I was mostly reading a history of Charles Lindbergh’s Atlantic flight with other historical events peppered in. That said, Lindbergh’s historical flight probably merits that level of focus, while the intense flooding of the Mississippi or Coolidge’s school-boy flights of fancy were more easily examined and quickly laid aside. I particularly enjoyed the sections on Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, the invention of television, and the sheer racism of the era–something we often like to forget. Bryson’s review of this summer left me feeling that I had a better grasp of what America was going through during this historic summer that is often overlooked by being swept quietly under the rug of the Roaring Twenties.
As is often true with Bryson, it is not the subject matter of the book so much as his writing style that makes it a particularly enjoyable read. He brings his usual blend of British dry humor and endearing Midwestern innocence to the subject matter, which is fitting as he is a native of Iowa who currently resides in England. He stacks adjectives and adverbs in front of nouns and statements in a way that few authors can accomplish without sounding obnoxious (“very probably” comes to mind). I had the pleasure of seeing him speak at the Chicago Public Library several years ago when he was promoting his book At Home and can report that he has the same demeanor in person that he does on the page. He is genuinely likable and funny, though I will maintain–as I always have–that his writing style suits narratives even better than it does historical accounts or investigative nonfiction. In my opinion, A Walk in the Woods remains his best work.
Speaking of At Home, I think One Summer escapes the flaw that plagued At Home throughout its expansive and meandering pages. That flaw was this: lack of focus. At Home was a similar book to One Summer, but instead of focusing on one summer in American history it focused on the house Bryson recently purchased in England. It was still an enjoyable read–don’t get me wrong–but as Bryson wandered from room to room talking about the history of table salt or fireplaces, detouring to examine the the various trysts and folies of historical figures, and rerouting again to talk about the history of something else discovered in these affairs I began feeling a bit unsure, as a reader, of where I was going or how any of it really related to his house. One Summer has much better focus, though I imagine that many Bryson fans might not call his capricious style a flaw anyway. Perhaps you should read both and decide for yourself.
The picture above is from our library.