I love historical fiction. There’s a part of me that will always be in love with British history (and the scandals that go along with it!) and historical fiction from across the pond. Lawhon’s Flight of Dreams has made me broaden my taste in historical fiction. I loved Flight of Dreams: the writing, the characters, and the curiosity it encouraged in me. That curiosity, by the way, is one of the reasons I love historical fiction the most. Because I always want to ask, “Did it REALLY happen that way? How did it really end?”
Lawhon’s novel, out the 23rd of February, recounts the final journey of The Hindenburg from before liftoff to after the explosion, and from the perspectives of many people on board. We experience the journey from the perspectives of the Stewardess, Journalist, Navigator, American, and Cabin Boy, as Lawhon identifies them for their chapters. Each has a unique perspective. Emilie Imhof, the Stewardess, is the first woman the Zeppelin Reederei ever employed. The Journalist, Gertrud Adelt, has left her young son behind to travel to America with her husband, but not by her own choice. The navigator, Max Zabel, has risen through the ranks of the crew, and now has his sights set on steering Emilie’s heart to him. The cabin boy, Werner Franz, sought employment with the Zeppelin Reederei in order to help his family after the death of his father. The American—whose true name we never learn—is a mystery: he is not who he seems, or even who he says he is. There are other characters, of course and we see them as told from the perspective of the main narrative viewpoints.
As the journey and book progressed, I cared more and more for all—well most—of the characters. I wanted to throttle the American, at least, for his manipulations and sneakiness. I wanted Werner to feel as though he’d made his mother and family proud. I wanted Max and Emilie to end up together. I wanted Gertrud to find peace, finally, at home with her husband and son. A part of me wanted, naturally, for The Hindenburg and its passengers to make it through the landing unscathed.
This is because what Lawhon does in Flight of Dreams is trick us into emotionally investing in characters whose actual fates (which she remained true to in the novel) we could easily find out (thanks to curiosity and Dr. Google). During my reading, I would google certain characters and turn to my husband with an “Oh my god!” or a “Guess what?!” But the magic of Lawhon’s novel is that, no matter the character’s fate, I was invested. Lawhon laid their hopes, fears, strengths and weaknesses out for us in a way that history books, news reports, or newsreels could not or did not. She says in the Author’s Note that she doesn’t believe the flight was uneventful:
“Ninety-seven people traveled on a floating luxury hotel for three days over the Atlantic Ocean…you can’t place that many people in such a small space for any length of time and not have tension brewing beneath the surface.”
Her assessment of the situation is no doubt absolutely correct. So many people together in what could, admittedly, be a life-or-death situation even without knowing the end (they’re floating over the Atlantic in a fancy balloon filled with hydrogen, for goodness’ sake) definitely provides for some tense situations.
The other thing Lawhon employs masterfully in this book is that special kind of “you-know-what-will-happen-but-you-keep-reading-anyway” suspense. The book is divided into days, and the title pages for each section even reveal how long it is until The Hindenburg will explode. But as the end of the book draws nearer (Fifteen minutes until the explosion, ten minutes…), the suspense only grows, because Lawhon has speculated about who or what caused the explosion, and we all want to know. Even after the ill-fated airship explodes, the suspense continues, because her characters and their unique situations pull you in and make you wish she’d changed the ending.
But we all know even a great work of fiction can’t change history; what it can do, though, is let us feel what it was like leading up to and during a notable historical event.
On the evening of May 3rd, 1937, ninety-seven people board the Hindenburg for its final, doomed flight to Lakehurst, New Jersey. Among them are a frightened stewardess who is not what she seems; the steadfast navigator determined to win her heart; a naive cabin boy eager to earn a permanent spot on the world’s largest airship; an impetuous journalist who has been blacklisted in her native Germany; and an enigmatic American businessman with a score to settle. Over the course of three hazy, champagne-soaked days their lies, fears, agendas, and hopes for the future are revealed.
Flight of Dreams is a fiercely intimate portrait of the real people on board the last flight of the Hindenburg. Behind them is the gathering storm in Europe and before them is looming disaster. But for the moment they float over the Atlantic, unaware of the inexorable, tragic fate that awaits them.
Brilliantly exploring one of the most enduring mysteries of the twentieth century, Flight of Dreams is that rare novel with spellbinding plotting that keeps you guessing till the last page and breathtaking emotional intensity that stays with you long after.