Bill Bryson's 'One Summer: America, 1927': a microscope on a pivotal year

The always engaging Bryson breathes new life into long-dead heroes and villains


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If Bill Bryson had been your high school history teacher, you would have never fallen asleep in class. In "One Summer: America 1927," Mr. Bryson gives the events of 85 years ago so much polish and sparkle that they cannot help holding your interest.

Mr. Bryson said he decided to catalog the summer of 1927 because it was a treasure trove of history. Just consider some of the names from 1927: Charles Lindbergh, Calvin Coolidge, Babe Ruth, Sacco and Vanzetti, Al Capone. Most people could provide at least one historical fact associated with each name. But could they make it interesting?


"ONE SUMMER: AMERICA, 1927"

By Bill Bryson
Doubleday ($28.95).


Just like anyone else who sets out to write a book, a history writer has a story to tell. However, even though a history lesson doesn't usually have undercover spies, car chases and romances, it doesn't mean that it can't be a tale that will keep you turning the page.

Mr. Bryson breathes new life into the long dead heroes and villains. For openers, he takes us up in the cockpit of the Spirit of St. Louis as Lindbergh makes the world's first solo flight across the Atlantic.

Later, Mr. Bryson goes all the way back to the boyhood of George Herman Ruth Jr. in a Baltimore reform school. Then he slowly charts the evolution of one of the greatest baseball players of all time, right up to the September day in 1927 when he hit his 60th home run of the season.

Mr. Bryson doesn't leave out the villains. He tells how one of the four sons of an Italian immigrant barber named Capone grew up and started associating with a Chicago mobster named Johnny Torrio. When Torrio was killed, the young Al Capone took over the racketeering outfit and expanded it all throughout Chicago.

Mr. Bryson also doesn't skip the lesser-known players of the summer of 1927. He includes such people as:

• Morley Sullivan, a South Carolina bootlegger. Although Sullivan only had a small-time criminal operation, his successful conviction gave federal agents an open door to prosecute other bootleggers. This included the 1927 arrest of Al Capone.

• Henry Wickam, a British explorer whose idea of cultivating a huge rubber tree plantation led Henry Ford into a failed and costly attempt to corner the rubber market for his Detroit-made automobiles.

• New York Yankees' owner Jacob Rupert, whose money and influence were essential to build and promote professional boxing into a legitimate source of large revenue and mass appeal.

Mr. Bryson also tells how heavy rain in 1927 led to massive flooding of the Mississippi River, resulting in half a million people left homeless. It was the largest natural disaster in American history.

In one of his recent books, "A Short History of Nearly Everything," Mr. Bryson took on the entire cosmos and gave the reader a succinct and understandable account of everything from Einstein's Theory to Darwinian evolution.

In "One Summer: America, 1927," Mr. Bryson uses a historical microscope instead of a huge telescope to scrutinize his topic. He zeroes in on the historical figures and lets us see what made them tick. We see the dedication that drove Lindbergh, the exuberance that Ruth showed on the field and the greed that destroyed Capone.

"Whatever else is was, it was one hell of a summer," Mr. Bryson says about this brief period of time in history. Mr. Bryson chose well in choosing to chronicle the summer of 1927, but he did an even better job in bringing the year back to life.

Mr. Bryson will appear Oct. 30 at Heinz Hall as part of Robert Morris University's Pittsburgh Speakers Series.

bookreviews

Steve Novak is a freelance writer living in Cleveland (theclev_reviews@yahoo.com).


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