Flight of Dreams – Ariel Lawhon

It was a bit unsettling to read about how big a part of the Hindenburg the Third Reich was. Not that I knew much about the zeppelin, apart from oh-the-humanity and the Mythbusters segment on why it went up so quickly. In the video, the tail section is already gone, so I never saw the fifty-foot swastikas painted there.

I also never realized the scale of the thing, thinking of it more like an airplane, when it might have been more comparable to a cruise ship. It was a kind of marvelous thing. The food was haute cuisine, and “You could buy a car for the price of a ticket on the Hindenburg.” Some of the windows opened for circulation and to allow people to better enjoy the view. On earlier voyages there was a piano specially made for the ship. It was huge: “Twenty-five cabins with two berths each, a dining room and promenade on the port side, and on the starboard side, the lounge, reading room, and a second promenade”; there were hand-painted murals on three walls of (I believe) the lounge.

There were children on board. That threw me for a loop.

I guess I never registered, either, that the disaster occurred at the end of a voyage from Germany to New Jersey, as the Hindenburg approached the mooring mast. (How very much worse it might have been if they had planned to use the mast at the top of the Empire State Building…)

The book is written in the present tense, which I have always hated but have become resigned to. It suits some books very well … but I didn’t think it was so successful here. For me a success is when I stop noticing, when it becomes just the story, and the writing disappears altoghether. Throughout Flight of Dreams, I noticed the “is” and “says” and so on. The writing also tends toward sentence fragments, which I also found distracting – I kept stopping to wonder why the style choice had been made, and rewriting it in my head.

Which doesn’t mean it was all bad. Some was nicely done:

“Have you seen my brother?”


Emilie enters holding the hand of a tear-stained young boy who has lost his mother.

But some of it was simply awkward. There is mention of Emilie’s technique of making a name stick in her memory, by repeating it to herself in every language she knows… but … a name is a name. Also, the using the simile of a balloon to describe the launching of the zeppelin was a little … obvious. There was homonym misuse, use of “lay” for “lie” (*sigh*), and sometimes simply rather clunky phrasing and overall deep need for an editorial pass-through – but the author did do a good job of building the story, stringing out suspense in the face of a foregone conclusion, and of characterization – though the latter was spotty – vivid in places, confusing in others (sometimes the cabin boy came across as a very young boy, and at other times older than his fourteen years) … and a bit uncomfortable, given that these were all real people. But the author acknowledges this: “That is the risk I took, and it is sobering to say the least. I know from experience how the loved ones of real people may read a fictionalized account of an event and then feel compelled to contact the writer. So I did my best to be honest and honorable on these pages.”

I do wonder about the nameless American who looms over the story; I find it hard to believe that he could manage the whole voyage without revealing his name, even an alias, to anyone, and that there was nothing to identify him in the manifest.

One other difficulty I had with the characters was the idea that there was a dog dumped in its cage in the cargo hold and left there without food or water, to live in its own filth for the duration of the voyage. How was I supposed to like any of the crew with that in the background?

I found the details of the Hindenburg fascinating – why it was filled with hydrogen instead of helium, the politics of it, and the day-to-day life within it. It’s always good to fill in gaps in my knowledge, and there was a big zeppelin-shaped gap in it before this. But in the end I didn’t entirely buy it. No one knows how and why the blaze aboard the Hindenburg started. The conclusion drawn by the Mythbusters was that the fire spread so hideously quickly because the paint (dope) used on the zeppelin’s skin was highly flammable. It seems that this author took the detail of a pistol found among the wreckage and ran with it … but it’s just one of many possibilities.

All in all, it seemed like it took longer to read than it ought to have. It was not terrible, by any means – but I wish it had been tighter – as streamlined as the zeppelin herself.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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