Both books are currently available in bookstores.
Human flight is extraordinary. It’s easy to forget, these days, when commercial flying has become as monotonous as commuting. But to fling ourselves into the sky, to zoom at speed through the air, and to safely land in the place we were aiming for – these are spectacular acts.
Two books recently published bring this to life: The Infinite Air by Fiona Kidman, and One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson (both from Random House). The former is a novel about pioneering Kiwi aviator Jean Batten, the latter is a pop history of the USA in 1927, the year Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic. They’re both excellent.
Opening a Bill Bryson book is like settling down with an old friend for a long, luxurious chat. His books are always packed full of interesting information, but he never sounds like he’s lecturing, simply that he’s happened to come across some wonderful stories that he wants to share with you. His enthusiasm is infectious, and you find yourself becoming immersed in all kinds of things that you had never before considered: baseball scores, historical numbers of US newspapers, the actual amounts of ticker tape in a ticker tape parade. Bryson has that special historian’s delight in discovering connections, uncovering links between Lindbergh and the stock market crash; between Babe Ruth, Al Capone and the invention of television.
The central event of One Summer is Lindbergh’s iconic cross-Atlantic flight, made the more extraordinary the more you learn: his youth, and lack of training; the surrounding disasters; the extreme dangers of early aviation; the limited technology, especially in terms of navigation; the clumsy, primitive aircraft (not even a covered cockpit!). Bryson’s point, though, it not just that Lindbergh was the first person in the world to fly the Atlantic solo; he was the first ever media superstar. The international press was still developing, and Lindbergh was one of its earliest darlings. Column in inches ran to the truckloads across the world; his slightest move was front page news for years. The ticker tape parade in New York City that greeted him after his flight is still the biggest there has ever been. He couldn’t go anywhere without being mobbed – and he hated it.
Cut to 1936 and aviation is still big news. jean Batten’s record-setting solo flight from England to New Zealand led her to be hailed as the most famous woman in the world. Whereas Bryson’s book is enthusiastically packed with data – engine makes, aircraft design, fuel types – and is firmly placed in the context of US history, Kidman’s novel brings us intimately inside Batten’s head, and keeps us there, torn between admiring fascination and uneasiness.
Batten’s ambition, determination and achievements floor me. Goals for women in her time were meant to centre around marriage and family. Batten instead wanted fame – she wanted to explore the world – she wanted to soar. She wanted to do things not only that no woman had done before, but that no one ever had. And, despite all obstacles, including precarious lack of funds and periods of severe depression, she set off, got the training, scraped together a plane, and triumphed magnificently. In a Bryson-esque twisting together of the histories of famous people, we also learn that Batten knew Winston Churchill, flew at the same airfield as Edward VII, hung out with Noel Coward, chatted with Queen Elizabeth, was ‘adopted’ by Louis Bleriot, and served as a muse for Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel.
Kidman does a superb job of bringing this magnificent tall poppy to life, and we are enthralled by Batten’s victories even as we are repulsed by her aloof selfishness, and pity her intense isolation. The drive that made her succeed bulldozed through her personal relationships, leaving her unhealthily close to her mother and largely friendless, estranged even from her brothers. Ultimately, though, Kidman sympathises: marriage, for Batten, would have meant the clipping of her wings. The men of The Infinite Air are largely boorish and jealous, chiding Batten for her arrogance and withdrawing support as she dares to succeed.
I highly recommend reading these books in tandem. Bryson gives a lively account of the context of early aviation and its global sense of new possibilities, setting out the ways in which certain people and feats became emblems of the ever-increasing possibilities of human daring. Kidman’s beautiful prose and textured characterisation help us experience the freedom of flight, the whoop of joy heard over the roar of cantankerous engines, the sheer miracle of breaking the bounds of gravity. Kidman and Bryson illustrate in glorious technicolour how Batten and Lindbergh aspired, in every sense of the word. I salute them for it.
The Infinite Air
by Fiona Kidman
One Summer: America 1927
by Bill Bryson
Both of these books are distributed by Random House NZ