Flight of Dreams by Ariel Lawhon
Doubleday: February 23, 2016
Genre: Historical Fiction
Source: Free From Publisher
Flight of Dreams tackles the crash of the Hindenburg, an event that I know little about. Lawhon fictionalizes the events that lead up to the famous crash, creating her own version of why the zeppelin exploded in New York. Considering the inescapable fate of the Hindenburg, I was not expecting to be so caught of in the suspense of Lawhon’s version of events. The Hindenburg is going to crash and some of the characters that readers meet are going to die. There is no escaping this fact. But, Lawhon gives readers such a compelling and human story about the people who were on board, and it’s the human element that captured and held my attention throughout.
Lawhon relates the events of the crash through five main characters: the Stewardess, the Journalist, the Navigator, the American, and the Cabin Boy. The days leading up the crash are all told through these character’s duties and interactions with one another. And, through these characters readers also get a sense of the tensions of the period. It’s 1937, only a few years before the outbreak of war; however, the consequences of the Great War are still looming large. In fact, the American is enraged that his brother died during the bombing at Coventry and the Hindenburg is his chance to get revenge, dooming the lives of many aboard the zeppelin.
Despite the grim subject matter, Flight of Dreams is a compelling read. I continually found myself thinking “just one more chapter” and then I would put the book down and get on with life. It never quite happened that way. The storytelling in Flight of Dreams was superb and the choice by the author to relate events through specific characters worked really well. But, what really keeps you engaged is the fact that it’s never forgotten that the Hindenburg is going to crash. Throughout the book, readers are given the countdown in days, hours, and minutes until the explosion. It’s impossible not to get wrapped up in the fate of the five characters Lawhon introduces you to. Who will survive? In tying this question to specific people, Lawhon forces the reader to really consider the implications of the crash. It’s not some dry historical event that happened long ago. In Flight of Dreams the event gains immediacy with those who are on the ship. Fans of historical fiction that tackle a true event will be engrossed with Flight of Dreams.
In addition to the crash, there are many smaller narratives that are happening throughout the book. For the Stewardess, Emilie, its her desire to defect to American before her Jewish heritage is discovered, yet it means leaving behind a man that she’s come to love. The Navigator, Max, wants to convince Emilie to stay and that in marriage he can protect her from the dangerous murmurings in Germany. The Journalist, Gertrud, only desires to return home with her husband to her young son, but due to their outspoken career Gertrud and her husband must make the voyage to America. For Werner, the young Cabin Boy, this voyage is just the beginning; he hopes to continue working and supporting his family back in Germany, if only he doesn’t get in trouble first. For the mysterious American, his journey is all about revenge, and it is his mission that ties the narratives together, since from the star its clear that he plans on killing a man on the voyage as well as destroying the Hindenburg. All of these characters have their own motives and personality that is separate from the crash of the Hindenburg and it is that fact that makes this historical event come alive. Without these characters the Hindenburg is a disaster, with their narratives it becomes a tragedy.
What I also find interesting about reading about the crash of the Hindenburg is that fact that it’s impossible to separate it from future events. Only the reader is aware of the impending Second World War. Finishing the book, readers can’t help but wonder what lies ahead for the survivors of the crash. Have they only survived one disaster to be thrust into another? It’s an interesting question and I don’t think it will be far from the minds of many readers and I wonder if that was the author’s intention.
Flight of Dreams gives readers a version of the Hindenburg crash that is very likely fictional; however, the author presents her version of events in a compelling and immediate way. Yes, the Hindenburg may not have crashed because of one man’s revenge, but then again, it very well could have. Ultimately, it’s not the cause of the crash that is important about Flight of Dreams, rather it is the author’s exploration of the characters that were aboard the fatal flight.
Before even reading Flight of Dreams, the recommendation that came to mind was Kate Alcott’s The Dressmaker, a novel that depicts the final days of the voyage of the Titanic and the consequences for the survivors. Like Flight of Dreams, Alcott explores the more human impact of the tragedy, and will likely appeal to readers who like their historical fiction grounded in fact.
Sara Donati is another author that I find incorporates historical details really well without those details becoming dry as dust. Her latest book, The Gilded Hour, was a fabulous book that examined a number of compelling subjects in 1883 New York. Read my full review to see why this one should be on your radar.
For another historical read that features a historical explosion try Charlotte Rogan’s The Lifeboat. What I think will appeal to readers of Flight of Dreams is Rogan’s retrospective storytelling. The questionable narrator relates her tale of survival while on trial for murder.