“The Aviator’s Wife” Author Lands in Sacramento
What a thrill to meet Melanie Benjamin, author of Alice I Have Been, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb and now The Aviator’s Wife. She spoke Thursday night at the Tsakapoulos Library Galleria as part of The Sacramento Bee Book Club—as well her barnstorming book tour (check out her schedule here to see when she’ll be in your neck of the woods.)
As an Alice fan, I really enjoyed reading her first book—which is a behind the scenes imagining of the real word of Alice (in Wonderland) Liddell and Charles Dodson (pen-name, Lewis Carroll) in Victorian England. But I liked her next book,“Mrs. Tom Thumb,” even more. What a great inside look at circus-life, P.T. Barnum, and Show Boating on the Mississippi river during mid-19th century America. (This is also great setting “read-alike” for readers who enjoyed reading Water For Elephants.) But I absolutely 5-star-LOVED her latest book about the marriage of Charles “Lucky Lindy” Lindbergh and his talented but unassuming wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh.
Who knows when I first became of aware of Charles Lindbergh? I mean, when did you first learn of Christopher Columbus, or George Washington—or God? I feel I was born knowing about him… But in graduate school, a friend gave me the lyrical book, Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh—and that I will never forget. Although the book was written in 1955, as good classics will be—it is timeless! Anne’s insightful musings on life, family, marriage, and life passages give reflection on what is important to all of us—that is, when we can escape the everyday demands and distractions that pull us in too many directions. In a brilliant marketing move, Michael Troyan and the nice folks from the Citrus Heights B&N store offered this beloved classic alongside Benjamin’s book—and smart buyers were picking up both.
But I digress, so, back to The Aviator’s Wife and Melanie Benjamin. Melanie told us that in choosing her book topics, she “is drawn to the hidden corners and closets of a life that I feel aren’t explored–and stories I suspect may have holes.” Of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, she believed, most of us certainly “only knew in glimpses and fragments.” Although heavily researched, Melanie said that she likes to use fiction to tell her stories since through fiction we “can come closer to the emotional truth.” And what an emotional truth we have with Anne! The quiet and literary daughter of the US ambassador to Mexico, she met “Lucky Lindy” on a visit to Mexico City shortly after his rise to fame in 1927 as the first pilot to cross the Atlantic in his Spirit of St. Louis aircraft. Their near-terminal shyness brought them together. Anne returns to Smith to complete her senior year—where she won several literary prizes—thinking she’d made no impression on the most famous man in the world. However, Charles contacts her after her graduation and after a short courtship, the two are married. Thus begins an almost unbelievable tale of their marriage including Anne’s accomplishments as an aviator in her own right; the couple’s involvement in surveying transatlantic air routes and helping to found many of the first commercial airlines, the “crime of the century” kidnapping of their first child, Charles skewed and unpopular political life, his role in WWII, Anne and Charles’ writing—both separately and jointly, and a few surprises I won’t spoil for you along the way.
Melanie observed that Anne’s “journey from a quiet country girl to the strong woman who wrote Gift from the Sea correlated with women’s development” in our nation at that same time. Of course, during Anne’s lifetime she also got her pilot’s license, was the first woman to obtain a glider’s license, and wrote 13 other books including the award-winners: North to the Orient, Listen! The Wind, and War Within and Without—oh yeah—and raised five children.
But Melanie is not just good at selecting and researching compelling topics. She is a writer that brings you into the story as though you were there. We experience how Anne must’ve felt as a public figure with no privacy—especially after Charlie’s death:
“ Working for months on an account of our trip to the Orient, in the end I still wasn’t satisfied with it; I had found it impossible to capture the innocence of that time before my baby’s death. It had done modestly well, and Charles was proud of it, although I couldn’t help but think that most people bought it out of a morbid curiosity. The bereaved mother’s little book—could you read her tragedy between the lines? I’d imagined people paging feverishly through it, eager to find evidence of a splotched tear, a blurry word, a barely suppressed sob.”
And we know what she must’ve felt—after all of her accomplishments—to still remain in the shadow of her more-famous husband:
“I beamed for the photographers beside Charles when he was notified he had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for biography/autobiography. My beam diminished, however, when he neglected to thank me, thanking the Wright Brothers, instead. It vanished completely when he was given a contract for another book, sight unseen.”
And how she felt to realize her children saw her as “just a mom”—and the doubts she had that she could ever be more than that again:
“To my children, I was just Mom. That was all. And before that, I had been Charles’s wife, and the bereaved mother of the slain child. That was all. But before that, I had been a pilot. An adventurer. I had broken records—but I forgotten about them. I had steered aircraft—but I didn’t think I would know how to, anymore. I had soared across the sky, every bit as daring as Lucky Lindy himself, the one person in the world who could keep up with him. Yet motherhood had brought me down to earth with a thud, and kept me there with tentacles made of diapers and tears and lullabies and phone calls and car pools and the sticky residue of hairspray and Barbosal all over the bathroom counter. Would I ever be able to soar again? Would I have the courage? Did any woman?
Indeed, Melanie writes of woman with whom we can all relate. For readers who enjoyed The Paris Wife and Loving Frank, this novel skillfully allows us to see the fascinating “woman behind the famous man”—and see the story from her perspective. As you might imagine, a story with such an inherent action-packed plot-line is well-paced, but the author is most skilled at moving seamlessly between the outer and the inner storylines.
For book club discussion, you’d think talking about the two strong characters of Anne and Lindy might be enough, but this novel also explores themes of home, family, marriage, parenting, privacy challenges of celebrity; tragedy and loss; heroism and patriotism; anti-Semitism; living the literary life; feminism; adultery; same-sex relationships—Yep—it’s got everything! If you’re hosting this meeting, be sure to pick up lots of wine—you’ll be there for a while…
BTW, Melanie told me how much she loves book clubs! She will call into book clubs—you can contact her here. She also has discussion questions on her website, and will send personalized, signed book-plate to your members on request!
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Disclaimer: I received my Advance Review Copy (ARC) from the publisher — a common practice in the industry. I never accept payment in exchange for a review or mention. I am also an Amazon Affiliate.