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Book Review: The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin

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Melanie Benjamin makes it clear — on her website and within The Aviator’s Wife itself — that what she is presenting about Anne Morrow Lindbergh, aviatrix, explorer, and remarkably poetic writer, is fiction. She also reminds the reader that historical fiction can lead one to an interest in the history that lies behind the story she has chosen to tell. On this, I can certainly agree with her.

I (guiltily) enjoyed The Aviator’s Wife – the first fiction of this kind I have read in a very long time — but even in full acceptance that fiction and nonfiction are not the same, it troubled me. I admire its ambition — to try to replicate the voice and tone of a writer known and loved by thousands of people (and hated by many, to be sure). Yet, problems remain when a writer presents historical fiction as a lure to actual history. Some of the readers who have not yet read Mrs. Lindbergh’s books may be disappointed and “turned off” by the real woman’s more literate and, at times, far less forthcoming, tone.

AML, as she often referred to herself, wrote lyrically and, at least in the beginning of her relationship with Charles Lindbergh, cautiously, as she says in her first volume of diaries and letters, Bring Me a Unicorn. Lindbergh’s passion for privacy — something he would know very little of from the moment his wheels touched down on May 21, 1927 in Paris, France, after his historic solo flight from New York City — kept Anne  from expressing herself in the way she normally did. So, The Aviator’s Wife will surely seem to offer the reader more of the “real Anne” than Anne herself was permitted to do, at least at that time.

She was a wonderful writer. I can’t help but admire her, in spite of everything that came later in her life, including the terrible book Wave of the Future (1940), which seemed to say that dictatorships were unavoidable and we might as well get used to them (AML later expressed her regret over the book and her wish that she had never written it). 

Anne’s loyalty to Charles Lindbergh’s evidently anti-Semitic attitude and his stance against America’s involvement in World War II caused her much personal pain. Her brother-in- law, sister, and mother were all passionately in favor of helping the British. Her teacher, Mina Curtiss, and friends of hers were Jewish.  Lindbergh’s speech, which she opposed — to no avail– harmed her life.  More than that — it harmed her reputation as a writer.

In spite of all this, even in spite of my life as a granddaughter of Jews on my father’s side, I personally consider Anne Lindbergh one of the greatest of American writers. She never joined “America First,”  the isolationist organization in which Lindbergh rose to be a star.

My admiration for Mrs. Lindbergh’s work is partly based on what she calls “intermittency,” in her vastly loved bestseller Gift from the Sea (1955). She is a complex person. She writes supporting Lindbergh; she also writes about the transcendent quality of the sea, the sky and the stars. Her friendship with Edward Sheldon, a blind and paralyzed playwright who helped other playwrights and writers to achieve their personal best was a part of her life I’d have loved to know more about.

One of my favorite pieces of writing by AML is an article she wrote for “Reader’s Digest” about Sheldon. She shows him as a kind of modern American Zen master, and also an easy, encouraging friend. The brief piece is so remarkably evocative that one almost knows exactly what it was to have been in the presence of such a person.

Early on, she loved, really loved — there is no other word for it — the great flyer and writer Antoine de St. Exupery, who crashed while flying against the Nazis for France. Yet later she allowed Lindbergh to reject France, which had taken them in (as had Britain) and leave both countries to fall to Hitler. Women did have a different role in their husband’s lives in those days, but she could have taken a stand against him. I suppose that my admiration for the woman herself is based on intermittency.

I know that space and the need for focus makes it impossible for all this to come to the fore in Ms. Benjamin’s novel. I know that one cannot include everything, but how I would have loved to read about more of the rarities in AML’s life, as opposed to all that we already know — the kidnapping of her first son, the bringing-up of her five surviving children.

Mrs. Lindbergh had a quality that is missing from our life today, for the most part — a real literacy, and a true love of poetry. We hear it every day in things such as the present use of the word “lay” for “lie,” and “like” when used where “as if” is the proper usage. The person telling the story in The Aviator’s Wife could be anyone, even though it is made clear that she was the daughter of a J.P. Morgan partner, the Ambassador to Mexico.

Perhaps this is something that matters to only a very few. But that certain persons lived a life of the mind that is oddly out of reach to many readers today is important. I cannot help but feel that it ought to be brought forth like a vintage diamond and shown to the reader, ineffably precious. Let us not lower ourselves to the understanding of the present, but try to lift the reader up to the knowledge of the past.

There are anomalies and oddities in the Benjamin book. Elisabeth Morrow, Anne’s sister — was she, as presented here, a lesbian? Did she truly have a relationship with Constance Chilton, her friend and co-educator?  If she were, I certainly wouldn’t think less of her; nor would most in this day. But in all the Lindbergh legends, I have never read anything about this.

Her marriage to Aubrey Morgan, however brief (she died of heart failure in 1934), seems to have been a happy and fulfilled one. It is not important whether she and Constance Chilton were lovers, but since we don’t know that they were, why create an image that seems oddly out of place and is unknown to those who have already written about the Lindberghs and Morrows?

I also feel that it is most unlikely that Anne ever knew that Charles Lindbergh had lovers (three, and seven children) in Germany. The most that has been said of this, by a friend of hers, is “She knew, but she didn’t know what she knew.” At the same time, Anne herself had a love affair — though apparently some have thought that it was platonic — with her doctor, Dana Atchley. Charles Lindbergh seems to have known about this relationship. At the end of the book, Lindbergh, dying, also admits to Anne that he did something to their baby “back in thirty-two,” something that has constantly been an idea in the minds of Lindbergh kidnapping conspiracists, unlikely as it may be.
Lindbergh has been blamed for killing Charles Lindbergh, Jr. while playing one of his practical jokes — or even to get rid of him because there was “something wrong” with him — almost certainly untrue.

Lindbergh was unduly rough with his children. He left Charles Jr., a baby, outside for an hour in a crib to “learn to take care of himself;” he spanked his other children (I wonder why Anne did not try to prevent this, since later on, in old age, it is clear that she did not agree with spanking children by asking her daughter Reeve to take her home — “they spank children here!”) — and scolded them, but he apparently loved them in his own way — and obviously wanted to have as many as he could.

My main objection, however, remains that so many people know Anne Lindbergh’s style, Smith College background, her writing style, and her sensitive, literate voice, that for her readers, this book is almost impossible to accept as belonging to the same person. Anyone with an interest in the Lindbergh family would like to know more about them — about the relationship between Anne and Charles, which was often difficult — Anne considered divorcing Charles in the 1950s — but which, in reality, never failed to the end. But we are more likely to learn of it if more Lindbergh family papers are released, and more histories written, than through fiction.

I appreciate the place of historical fiction, especially for younger readers, so long as they know that there are more truths to be learned than those presented in the story they are reading. Certainly books like Thomas B. Costain’s led me into the fascinating and entangled world of British history and the relationships of the royal family of the day. But it is taking a great chance on either losing the respect of the reader or leading them completely astray to write a book such as this.

It takes a person who lived through the 20th century and was a writer with a strong, vivid, known, and widely appreciated voice and presents her as, in essence, the same almost childlike character throughout the book. Anne Lindbergh, despite her unfortunate position on help to Britain (while her own family stood staunchly by the Allies) during World War II, was a person who grew and changed and learned.

I wish Ms. Benjamin well with this form of literature, especially if it leads the reader farther into the truth, but I wish that she had not tried to tell the story in a first-person voice. It is grating to those who know the true person’s voice, with all its beauty and all its errors, very well. Yet I hope people will read The Aviator’s Wife -- and let it lead them into a more profound understanding of this complex woman and her times.

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About Ladybelle Fiske

  • Victoria

    I appreciate this review. I have read all of AML journals and her books and found that although an interesting story it was missing AML true voice…I felt disappointed in some ways…..and I wondered about what was true and what created. I do appreciate the honoring of her life though…she was really a remarkable human being.