ONE SUMMER: America, 1927, by Bill Bryson. Doubleday, 509 pp., $28.95.
In retrospect, most summers seem pretty much alike: vacations in the country, lazy days at the beach and lighter workloads that ramp up again after Labor Day. But some summers evoke memories that linger for decades, and the summer of 1927 may be the most telling example.
It was a month before the official start of summer that Charles Lindbergh's solo flight from New York to Paris captivated the world and made him an instant celebrity. And it was on the last day of September that Babe Ruth hit his record-breaking 60th home run, putting an exclamation point on a Yankees season ranked among baseball's greatest ever.
In between those achievements, epic flooding on the mighty Mississippi devastated much of the nation's midsection, Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti were executed for killing a guard and a payroll clerk during a Massachusetts robbery, president Calvin Coolidge stunned the political world by announcing he would not seek re-election and international banking officials meeting in New York opted to lower interest rates, sparking a speculative bubble that would end with the stock market crash two years later.
Bill Bryson, the bestselling author of "A Walk in the Woods" and "At Home," among others, has captured the zeitgeist of the Roaring Twenties in this entertaining and informative book. With Europe still struggling to recover from the Great War, America emerged as the dominant player in everything from new inventions to popular culture. It was a golden age for reading: Books, magazines and newspapers thrived, and tabloids pumped out a steady stream of crime news, sports stories and celebrity gossip. Meanwhile, radio made its debut, gaining a national audience for major events like that summer's DempseyTunney heavyweight championship rematch, which drew 150,000 spectators to Chicago's Soldier Field.
The book is filled with profiles of some of the era's top newsmakers and celebrities: Herbert Hoover, Al Capone, Henry Ford, Al Jolson, Bill Tilden, flagpole sitter Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly, Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum and Queens housewife Ruth Snyder, who teamed up with her lover, Judd Gray, to murder her husband.
One of the book's less remembered but most disquieting episodes seems like a tragedy drawn from today's headlines: A distraught Michigan man who blamed local school taxes for the pending foreclosure on his farm planted explosives in a school basement, killing 44 people, 37 of them children.
The Jazz Age was a time of widespread bigotry, as the Ku Klux Klan gained wide support and theories of racial superiority won acceptance in academic circles. But the period is best remembered as a time of heady optimism for a nation that embraced the future as a time of endless possibilities. This splendid book, written in the breezy and humorous style that has come to be Bryson's trademark, is sure to delight readers steeped in the history of the period as well as those looking to acquaint themselves with it for the first time.