Last week, I reviewed Underground Angel by Dr. Sheryl White, which is an historical novel about the very real and heroic figure Laura Smith Haviland. I recently read another historical novel about a real person, which again brought someone who seemed fictional into focus as an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances.
The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin takes the life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh and brings us right into the living room and heart of this woman who married the world’s hero, Charles Lindbergh. They married in the heady years right after Lindbergh completed the first solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927.
From the start, this couple became the darling of the media, until it turned ugly. The Lindberghs were hounded by the press and the public. We think of the paparazzi and their ugly pursuit of the rich and famous as a modern evil. Through the fictionalized personal relationships of Anne and Charles and the use of very real factual accounts of their life, Melanie Benjamin creates a horrific tale of the dangers of turning people into icons.
Benjamin paints a sympathetic portrait of Anne Morrow Lindbergh as she delves into her personal life using biographies, Anne’s own books, and her letters. The novel shows Anne struggling to keep her family together and to keep her restless and self-absorbed husband happy. It’s an impossible job, particularly after she becomes a mother. Even in the first months of baby Charlie’s life, the couple knew they needed to shield their son from media exposure. Charles even limited the number of photographs taken of him for fear of someone in the household or their employ of selling them to the media. When Charlie is abducted, the worst side of humanity is exposed, as the Lindberghs deal very publicly with their very private death.
This time in Anne’s life is heartbreaking in its telling. This happened long before I was born, but still I knew of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. It remains a well known story in the archives of American history. But to actually go inside the home and heart of Anne to feel her grieve and anguish at the loss of her son, is something else. Benjamin’s portrayal of the months of mourning cut through the black and white photographs of newsreels to the full on color of pain at the loss of a child. The outside world beyond the kidnapper himself was as scary as the actual event. People tried to give their own babies to Anne to make up for it. Even forty years after the event, people showed up on her doorstep to tell her they were her son, Charlie.
The personal story of this very public family gave me insight into the reasons we turn people into heroes. Many times it’s because of one thing they’ve done. Just because Charles Lindbergh could fly a plane and advise governments about air routes and airplane construction, doesn’t mean he was a good person in other areas of his life. Yet, we seek our heroes in those who hit home runs, throw touchdown passes, and sink three-pointers and seem surprised when they turn out to be only human.
Melanie Benjamin shows in her personal glimpse into a very public family, that the real heroes are the ordinary folks, such as Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who stay and take care of the family and tend to small, yet more important, elements of living a life of integrity and compassion. Mrs. Lindbergh had no idea what her life would be like married to someone whose fame made the world bow down in front of him. She soon found out, it required her to bow down as well.
Anne’s strength and wisdom soon brought her up to a standing position. I felt as if I was snooping behind the curtain in reading this book that exposes both Anne and Charles as very real human beings with all the foibles and eccentricities that implies.
I was slightly disappointed in the ending. Without giving a spoiler, I’ll simply say, the author was so detailed throughout the novel, until the end.
I recommend reading this book for a greater understanding of human nature and for a lesson in where we place our adoration and for what reasons. It’s also another view of an important piece of U.S. and World history as the novel takes place from 1927-1974, with a great emphasis on the pre-World War II years. Charles Lindbergh lost some of his stature in his loyalties, and it’s also a turning point in the marriage because of his beliefs.