The Friends of the Library’s April 19 book discussion will be on Melanie Benjamin’s New York Times bestselling novel of 1993, “The Aviator’s Wife.”
These discussions are held the third Wednesday of each month at noon in the Big Spring Room at the Greeneville-Greene County Public Library. Members of the public are invited to attend and participate (and bring lunch, if they wish).
The title of this historical novel accurately states how most of the public viewed the wife of world-famous, ground-breaking aviator Charles Augustus Lindbergh. But Anne Morrow Lindbergh struggled throughout her life to become something more than a compliant appendage to an international hero and controlling husband.
In the author’s note Benjamin states, “I wanted to make Anne the heroine of her own story, finally — as in memory (both her written accounts and the public’s perception) she is far too often overshadowed by the dominant personality that is Charles Lindbergh.” In this, Benjamin has succeeded.
Anne first met Lindbergh (“the colonel”) on Dec. 21, 1927, at the American embassy in Mexico City where her father was ambassador. He was also a partner in J.P. Morgan & Sons and Lindbergh’s financial advisor.
Anne was a shy, 21-year-old senior at Smith College (her mother and older sister were graduates) who considered herself plain and sought refuge in books. But she was quite intelligent and aspired to become a writer.
Charles was also shy, despite having become an international hero after flying the Atlantic solo the previous May. The two become immediately smitten (secretly) with each other, though each in a somewhat strange way. Charles is all business, to the point that his wooing of Anne is almost comical. Anne views Charles as a deity in human form.
Out of the blue, he asks and she consents. They wed in May 1929 in a private ceremony in her parents’ home. They honeymoon on a motorboat to avoid the adoring crowds, and Anne gets a shocking taste of what her married life will be like: “. . . you slept in, so now we’re behind schedule. There are tins of food down in the galley, so I’d like my breakfast. After you clean up — you must scrub out the head [lavatory] with bleach, of course, every day — I’ll lift anchor.”
And so it is throughout nearly all of their 45-year married life. Charles rarely asks for anything; he simply commands it.
Without protesting, Anne dutifully carries out his orders. She learns celestial navigation and earns a pilot’s license, so she can be her husband’s co-pilot and navigator on numerous lengthy (and dangerous) flights. She becomes the first woman to earn a glider pilot’s license. Not even all this results in anything approaching equality with her husband — either in his eyes or those of the public.
The novel proceeds to describe the tensions arising from the kidnapping and murder of their firstborn son, “Charlie,” (Charles had the body cremated without consulting Anne), and their subsequent voluntary exile in Europe, where Charles becomes an admirer of Adolf Hitler and German efficiency.
Despite her disagreement with his opinions, in 1940 Anne publishes a 41-page booklet, “The Wave of the Future,” in support of her husband’s advocacy of a U.S.-German peace treaty. This work, with its fascistic and anti-Semitic overtones, becomes one of the most despised American writings of the World War II era.
The contemporary reader will find Anne’s submissive posture inexplicable, but Anne redeems herself in mid-life, learning to speak out, creating a life of her own and realizing her ambition to become a respected writer with the publication in 1955 of “Gift of the Sea,” which becomes a national bestseller.
Writing in The Washington Post, Eugenia Kim calls The Aviator’s Wife “an engaging novel, less so for the portrayal of Anne’s often overwrought emotional journey than for its inherently fascinating record of all things Lindbergh. Benjamin’s thorough historical and cultural research augments the authenticity of this intimate story and will probably draw the interest of book clubs.”
Autobiography is necessarily selective, and the author is free to omit uncomfortable facts; historical fiction often reads between the lines, imagining conversations and events that can be inferred from sources. This is where Benjamin excels.
Copies of the book are available to be checked out at the library. Those attending are asked to note that the discussion will take place in the Big Spring Room located downstairs. Patrons may enter from the rear of the library.
The Brown Bag Group has selected titles for the coming year’s disussions:
• May 17 — Burton, Tom, “Serpent-Handling Believers” (non-fiction);
• June 21 — Chabon, Michael, “Moonglow” (fiction);
• July 19 — Coates, Ta-Nehisi, “Between the World and Me” (essays);
• Aug. 16 — Dykeman, Wilma, “Family of Earth: A Southern Mountain Childhood” (memoir)
• Sept. 20 — Kessler, Ronald, “The Season: The Secret Life . . . America’s Richest Society” (non-fiction)
• Oct. 18 — McEwan, Ian, “Nutshell” (fiction);
• Nov. 15 — Proulx, Annie, “Barkskins” (fiction);
• Dec. 20 — Sevareid, Eric, “Canoeing with the Cree” (non-fiction);
• Jan. 17, 2018 — Smith, Zadie, “Swing Time” (fiction);
• Feb. 21, 2018 — Vance, J.D., “Hillbilly Elegy” (non-fiction); and
• March 21, 2018 — Whitehead, Colson, “The Underground Railroad” (fiction).