The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin


Quick: what did Lindbergh do? Fly solo and non-stop across the Atlantic from Long Island to Paris, yes.

Anything else? Had a baby who was kidnapped, pro-German/anti-Semitic political leanings, involved with aviation…yes, also all true….if you’re thinking of Charles Lindbergh.

That’s what he did. What did she do?

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the titular “Aviator’s Wife”, was herself an aviatrix and author, in addition to the roles more conventional for the time of wife and mother and staunch supporter of her husband’s career and viewpoints while he was alive. She wrote and edited a number of books, including her husband’s autobiography, The Spirit of St. Louis, and her own, and Gift from the Sea, among others. The majority of her adult life, however, was spent as wife to (and in the shadow of) the renowned Charles Lindbergh; Anne not only remained behind with the children as they grew up, but publically supported her husband’s activities and political views1.

Charles and Anne both struggle with the publicity resulting from his trans-Atlantic flight; being in the public eye meant scrutiny of his opinions on proper breeding and isolationist stance during the lead-up and during World War Two. The 20-20 hindsight of intervening decades has largely discredited both, and so perhaps it’s not surprising that The Aviator’s Wife, being told from Anne’s perspective by a modern author, does suggest that Anne didn’t hold with her husband’s political beliefs but felt obligated, as a loyal wife, to support him in public.

As the children grow up, and Charles spends more and more time ‘traveling for work’, Anne herself struggles to reconcile her own desire for individuality with the societal expectation that she remain a helpmeet to her husband and mother to their children, even after the children have left home and the husband has proved himself not entirely the man she (and he) thought he was. In the end, neither attempt proves successful; though they remained married until Charles Lindbergh’s death in 1974, both Anne and Charles had affairs— she with the family doctor and he, perhaps not surprisingly, with a pair of Bavarian sisters and his East Prussian secretary, with whom he had a total of seven more children.

Overall, it’s well done.

Keep in mind, of course, that this is a novel, not a biography. As with Alice I Have Been and The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, Benjamin’s picked another ‘sidebar’ woman about whom to write a fictional biography. This is like her first two books in that Benjamin also sticks quite close to the truth, at least insofar as external events go, she extrapolates quite a bit in regards her subject’s inner thoughts, hopes, dreams and monologues.

I suspect that this one may be a bit more uncomfortable for readers than Benjamin’s first two books, as Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s life was, for the most part, within living memory. Modern readers with more than a smattering of political awareness may come away wondering how spineless someone would have to be to continue supporting another’s clearly anti-Semitic opinions, despite their good Jewish friends. Modern women may come away mumbling about how spineless a woman would have to be to sit back and let their husband do all that. I’d argue that it’s still an interesting read; she was who she was, and if Benjamin inspires some readers to delve deeper into the lives of Charles and Anne Lindbergh, so much the better. Certainly, Benjamin doesn’t claim that her novel is anything other than fiction, though based firmly in fact…and both Charles and Anne were prolific diarists and autobiographists, not to mention being fairly well documented elsewhere in contemporaneous news sources and political files.

Keep in mind, though, that this isn’t a uniformly grim novel enumerating the protagonists’ failings! Benjamin does include the joy both took in flying, and flying in the ’20s and ’30s was adventurous to say the least. Her descriptions of taking wing in those early planes, noisy and mechanically cantankerous, are worth reading if only to give an idea of what exactly it was Charles Lindbergh did dare to do with his beloved Spirit of Saint Louis, not to mention the delight Anne must have taken in her own flights. Benjamin also slips in a fair bit of sense of the times and also retrospective humor: as an example, the book and the relationship begin in the ’20s with a ballroom dance, and end, more or less, with the festivities attendant on the launch of Apollo XI, during which Anne dances the Monkey with Buzz Aldrin and convinces Spiro Agnew to try the Twist with her.

For those inspired to look farther for non-fiction autobiographies, try Susan Hertog’s Annie Morrow Lindbergh: Her Life, Benjamin ends her novel with Morrow Lindbergh, now in her seventies and a widow, taking a solo flight in her own airplane from the 1930s—a not too terribly subtle way of expressing the subject’s own personal trajectory into personal independence and freedom…but Morrow Lindbergh did live for another twenty-five years or thereabouts, not covered in the novel. (She died in 2001, on her daughter Reeve’s farm.)

1In fairness, I’m not sure how much of that support came from Anne’s own belief in same or whether she felt, as many women her age did, that she had to become so completely part of her husband’s life.

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