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Bill Bryson
One Summer: America, 1927
Doubleday / Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-767-91940-1
Publication Date: 10-01-2013
528 Pages; $28.95
Date Reviewed: 10-31-2013
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2013

Index:  Non-Fiction  General Fiction

Genre fiction benefits from the rules of the genre. If you decide to tell a mystery, science fiction or horror story, any one of them requires you hit certain notes. The lack of choice makes the writing easier. In the world of non-fiction, no such restrictions automatically apply. You have to make your own rules. With 'One Summer: American, 1927,' Bill Bryson sets up some very simple parameters. The book is about America in the summer of 1927. It still seems like a pretty wide-open subject, but Bryson threads his way through an entire country to tell a story that's both epic and personal, intimate and international.

Charles Lindberg is the through-line for Bryson, written here as a sort of geeky, awkward kid with guts and know-how. But Bryson proves himself to be a master of weaving Lindbergh through the path of a variety of characters, each of them vivid and important. Babe Ruth, Al Capone and Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the woman who brought Capone down by convicting him for income tax evasion. Bryson gives us the beginnings of celebrity culture, and crafts characters of those who later became caricatures. We meet a lot of people in 'One Summer' and they're all quite vivid and enjoyable to spend time with.

History may actually contain the word story, but it rarely works out so neatly as those we fashion in fiction. The challenge for Bryson then, is to, within the confines he has created for himself, find a single story around which to weave the real events that came and went as a matter of course. Lindbergh and the birth of flight are the elements that bind the book, but Bryson is smart enough to keep loose and easy. There's more than a bit of jazz feel in the way Bryson writes about straightforward narrative history. Bryson's story pops back and forth, sometimes grabbing bits of the past or future of his players. While Lindbergh holds the center, Bryson ranges far enough to include the banking cabal who helped bring about the Depression, the man who crafted Prohibition and a couple of Presidents. The book is chock full of life, but never feels overstuffed.

Holding all this together is Bryson's lighthearted prose. 'One Summer' is driven by a wry sense of humor, a very understated ironic perspective that keeps the reading lively. Bryson writes a lot of very nice sentences with balanced swings that bring out the complexities and contradictions of his characters and their stories that prove to be quite funny. He never makes fun of those in his sights, but instead lets them and their lives speak for themselves, not always to their own credit.

Given the many similarities between the politics and times of 1927 and the present, it might be expected that Bryson would lean on this to give the book relevance. To his credit, this never comes to pass. Bryson lets the world he creates and the characters he finds within that world speak for themselves. 'One Summer' is a history that manages to find story and celebrate it, to entertain readers in the past it creates while they read in a present that will change with the turn of every page.

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