Review: One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson’s most recent work, One Summer: America 1927, covers the months of May to September 1927, and gives a vivid portrayal of that crucial summer during the roaring twenties when Am

Bill Bryson’s most recent work, One Summer: America 1927, covers the months of May to September 1927, and gives a vivid portrayal of that crucial summer during the roaring twenties when America really came of age.
Kicking off with Charles Lindbergh’s record-breaking flight across the Atlantic, and culminating with the release of the film ‘The Jazz Singer’ which sparked a new era of motion picture, the summer of 1927 was a real turning point for the USA.
As hard as it is to believe, at the beginning of the 20th century America was living in the shadow of European developments, with advancements in most fields happening overseas. The events of 1927 are often eclipsed by the more famous milestones of the 20th century.
However that summer – as Bryson proves – actually gave America the boost it needed to grow into the power country it is today.
Enthralling tales and factual anecdotes
As much as I enjoy learning about history, before starting One Summer I was somewhat concerned it might have an encyclopedic tone – as a lover of fast-paced fiction, I was not up for a Wikipedia-esque bore. But Bryson actually finds a unique way to make historical facts interesting, setting the scene almost in the style of a novel – using real-life historical figures as characters in his story.
Managing to find a common link between say, Babe Ruth and Calvin Coolidge, Bryson effortlessly moulds factual anecdotes into enthralling tales, and rather than following the conventional chronological guidelines of a history book, Bryson intertwines several different stories at once.
By linking them to one another and staggering their development, Bryson holds the reader’s attention for the entire length of the book – after all, you wouldn’t finish a novel without finding out what happened to your favourite character, would you?
And speaking of characters, the summer of 1927 was full of them; Babe Ruth scored his record-breaking 60 home runs, Henry Ford began work on his ‘Model A,’ Gutzon Borglum started carving the faces of Mount Rushmore, Al Capone was at large in Chicago, and, most significantly, Charles Lindbergh made his historical flight across the Atlantic.
Forgetting you’re reading non-fiction
Lindbergh’s achievement generated as much as $100 million in aviation investment in the US, and, as Bryson puts it, “aviation became to the 1930s what radio was to the 1920s.” Who knows, without Lindbergh, ‘American Airlines’ might not exist…
Looking at that rather disparate list of people is testament to Bryson’s skill as a story-teller – using the backdrop of 1920s America, (which held ongoing threats from the Ku Klux Klan and devastating disasters like the great Mississippi flood) he links the separate people and events of 1927 to one another in a way that captivates the reader.
The segues from one to the next are seamless – you realise you’re suddenly reading about Babe Ruth’s love life, when on the previous page, Bryson was describing life in New York during the prohibition.
He gives vivid descriptions of people and settings (a railroad that “wandered confusedly around the upper Midwest, as if looking for a lost item” is a perfect example of his enchanting prose) that are so engaging that you forget you’re reading a piece of non-fiction.

Rave reviews

One Summer has received many 5-star reviews, with book-lovers on Twitter feeling much the same way:




The style of ‘pseudo-history’

However, in his review for the Washington Post, Douglas Brinkley describes One Summer as a “pseudo-history,” suggesting that Bryson’s writing style does not match up to customary historical texts. 

Granted, One Summer does not follow the conventions of a typical history textbook, but it must still be respected as a work of non-fiction, since Bryson’s version of a ‘pseudo-history’ involves using a fictional writing style and conversational tone to convey the facts, therefore ultimately encouraging more people to read non-fiction.

Rather than degrading One Summer as an imitation of traditional non-fiction, in my opinion, writing a ‘pseudo-history’ book should be considered a good thing. For example, I wouldn’t typically choose to read about Warren G Harding’s journey to presidency, but with the level of description and details Bryson includes, he could make pretty much any standard historical event sound extraordinary!

As far as conclusions go, Bryson is sparing – the book’s focus in purely the summer of 1927, therefore since Lindbergh’s, or Ruth’s, or Capone’s lives continued after that summer, Bryson cannot draw a line under one definitive moment.
The 27 page Epilogue makes up for this somewhat, tying up the loose ends for the various ‘characters,’ with each person’s name highlighted in bold, making it easy to find who you’re looking for.
In One Summer, Bryson essentially offers a descriptive and enjoyable historical timeline, filled with fascinating facts and charismatic anecdotes that uncover how America began its transformation from one of the most antiquated, to the most powerful country in the world.
What do you think of the book? Have your say in the comments section below.