Friday, July 8, 2016

Historical Fiction: Flight of Dreams by Ariel Lawhon

Most people are somewhat aware of the story of the Hindenburg. For the majority of us, we only know that it was a blimp and it exploded, causing someone to say the words "Oh the humanity," as the entire structure went up in flames, killing many people aboard. Flight of Dreams by Ariel Lawhon not only goes beyond just the sparse details that many of us have been with content with, but it also provides a story to some of the real-life passengers, as well as offering a theory as to what actually happened to cause the great airship to go up in  flames.

The Situation: It is May of 1937, and the Hindenburg is making its journey from Frankfurt, Germany, to Lakehurst New Jersey. Filled with 97 people, and hydrogen, the great airship lifts into the air and begins its three day journey across the Atlantic. On board are a collection of crewmen and passengers from various walks of life. Everyone has secrets, but some on this flight have more reason to be cautious than others. As the first woman to be a part of a crew on any airship, Emilie plans to do her job as she always does, hopefully not bringing any unnecessary attention to herself as she has plans of her own once the ship lands, and those plans aren't even her biggest secret. And Edward Douglas, one of the few Americans on board, is on a mission that must be executed to perfection as it involves both revenge, and the desire to keep the Nazis from being the world's leaders in air travel. Other key players such as Max, the navigator, and Gertrud, the journalist, will end up having their own part to play in the drama on board, all leading up to the disastrous explosion that will bring down the Hindenburg for good.

The Problem: In 1937, the world is done with World War I, but quickly gearing up for the second one. And while most of the people on board the Hindenburg are German, not all of them are loyal to the party who swastikas are emblazoned on the sides of the giant vessel. Gertrud is certainly one of them, and the suspicions surrounding her and her husband are what has cause German officials to force her to leave her son behind while the couple take this trip to America. And while it would be easy for Gertrud to focus on how much she misses her son, she soon realizes an adversary in the American, Edward Douglas, who clearly has some nefarious scheme of his own, and is insistent on stirring up drama and tensions among almost anyone he comes across. Meanwhile, Emilie must stay focused if she wants to carry out her own plans, but the navigator Max seeks her out at every opportunity as he has fallen for the stewardess and makes his intentions clear. He is certainly not part of Emilie's plan, but she also can't deny she has feelings for him as well. Life continues on inside the vessel more or less as it would on the ground, and no one realizes the danger that awaits them once they reach New Jersey.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set in 1937 aboard the German airship, the Hindenburg. And while Lawhon provides a reason for the explosion that took down the blimp during the course of her novel, officially, we do not really know what happened to cause it to ignite in flames the way it did. The people that Lawhon includes also existed in real life aboard the Hindenburg, but the story she gives them is almost completely fictionalized. So there really was a stewardess named Emilie, and a navigator named Max, and a cabin boy named Werner. But we don't know if Max and Emilie were romantically involved, or if Emilie really did have a massive secret that she must keep hidden at all costs. While the story is told by a third-person omniscient narrator, the perspective shifts between five different passengers/crew members: Emilie (stewardess), Max (navigator), Gertrud (journalist), Edward Douglas (American), and Werner (cabin boy). Almost all of them come into contact with the others at some point throughout the book, and the reader becomes privy to all of their thoughts, intentions, and opinions about everyone else on board. Almost each one has some thoughts about Nazi Germany and the state of the world as it was in 1937. It was a tense time, even for those aboard a luxurious airship.

My Verdict: I picked up the book because I was excited to learn more about the Hindenburg and the disaster that was its explosion in May of 1937. The problem with picking up a fictionalized account of the event is that I was pretty much simply tolerating most of the story until I could get to the explosion. The characters were interesting enough, and the drama that Lawhon invented for them was suspenseful and kept me reading. But for the most part, it felt like the story leading up to the explosion was dragged out for a little too long, especially the closer it got to the devastating climax. And while the "theory" Lawhon offers is plausible enough, I have to say that it was strange having the American be the antagonist on a Nazi blimp. For people like me who are more interested in the fire that ultimately consumed the Hindenburg, it may serve them better  to read nonfiction accounts of the disaster. But if you're better able to appreciate a good story and separate it from the actual historical event, then you'll probably enjoy Flight of Dreams a great deal.

Favorite Moment: When the great explosion finally takes place, and the narrative shows how it effected each character differently. 

Favorite Character: I think I am split between Gertrud the journalist and Werner the cabin boy. One is a ballsy woman afraid of very little and willing to confront anyone over anything, no matter how much trouble it gets her into. And the other is a young 14 year-old boy at his first job who proves to be both hard-working and loyal.

Recommended Reading: In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume covers three other air disasters, all of which also occurred in New Jersey, and gives fictionalized accounts surrounding those events.

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