One Summer: America, 1927, by Bill Bryson

October 24, 2014 Book Reviews 6 ★★★★

One Summer: America, 1927, by Bill BrysonOne Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson
Narrator: Bill Bryson
Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group on 2013-10-01
Genres: History
Pages: 528
Format: Audiobook
Source: the library
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Also by this author: Made in America

The summer of 1927 began with one of the signature events of the twentieth century: on May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first man to cross the Atlantic by plane nonstop, and when he landed in Le Bourget airfield near Paris, he ignited an explosion of worldwide rapture and instantly became the most famous person on the planet. Meanwhile, the titanically talented Babe Ruth was beginning his assault on the home run record, which would culminate on September 30 with his sixtieth blast, one of the most resonant and durable records in sports history.

In between those dates a Queens housewife named Ruth Snyder and her corset-salesman lover garroted her husband, leading to a murder trial that became a huge tabloid sensation. Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly sat atop a flagpole in Newark, New Jersey, for twelve days—a new record. The American South was clobbered by unprecedented rain and by flooding of the Mississippi basin, a great human disaster, the relief efforts for which were guided by the uncannily able and insufferably pompous Herbert Hoover. Calvin Coolidge interrupted an already leisurely presidency for an even more relaxing three-month vacation in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The gangster Al Capone tightened his grip on the illegal booze business through a gaudy and murderous reign of terror and municipal corruption. The first true “talking picture,” Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, was filmed and forever changed the motion picture industry. The four most powerful central bankers on earth met in secret session on a Long Island estate and made a fateful decision that virtually guaranteed a future crash and depression.

All this and much, much more transpired in that epochal summer of 1927, and Bill Bryson captures its outsized personalities, exciting events, and occasional just plain weirdness with his trademark vividness, eye for telling detail, and delicious humor. In that year America stepped out onto the world stage as the main event, and One Summer transforms it all into narrative nonfiction of the highest order.


I love the way Bryson wanders down interesting byroads as he writes. He rarely stays on one topic for very long. And yet his books are so readable, and so packed with wonderful tidbits of historical information, that the very process of wandering around becomes a large part of the charm.

In One Summer: America, 1927, Bryson weaves together many different strands: aviation, baseball, radio, television, boxing, Broadway, the Mississippi flood, anarchist violence, eugenics, bigotry, Prohibition, automation, banking – and ends up with a tapestry encapsulating the 1920s. He moves back and forth through time, exploring each topic in turn,  but always circling back to the amazing summer of 1927 and to Lindbergh and Babe Ruth – the two ‘heroes’ of his narrative, if either could really be called that. Their stories become the threads tying the entire book together.

Readers familiar only with the “Lucky Lindy” myth and perhaps the Lindbergh baby’s kidnapping will be surprised and even saddened by the contradictions of the man himself. Equally compelling are the stories of Babe Ruth and Lou Gherig, anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, Jack Dempsey, Henry Ford, Philo Farnsworth, and scores of others.

I listened to the audiobook, and if you’re an audiobook fan, I do recommend listening rather than reading the book. Bryson reads his work well, and I find his voice pleasant. His years in England have left him with not with a British accent, but a clearer, more precise diction than that of many Americans, and his sometimes wry delivery had me chuckling more than once.

Recommended for: anyone with an interest in early 20th-century American history and culture



About Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson was born in Iowa in 1951. He settled in England in the 1970s, married, and worked there as a journalist until he became a full time writer. He and his family lived for many years in the UK before returning to the States in 1995. In 2003, the family moved back to England, where they currently reside.

Bryson may be best known for his humorous and insightful travel memoirs, including ‘Notes from a Small Island’ and “A Walk in the Woods.’ He also wrote several highly praised books on the English language, including ‘Mother Tongue’ and ‘Made in America’. More recently, Bryson has turned his attention to domestic history (‘At Home’); science history (‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’), and Shakespeare. Bryson’s most recent book is ‘One Summer’, a chronicle of the American summer of 1927.

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • TBR Pile Reading Challenge 2014

6 Responses to “One Summer: America, 1927, by Bill Bryson”

    • Lark_Bookwyrm

      It was really good. I need to listen to more of his books. I’ve done At Home and parts of Notes from a Small Island (it had to go back to the library; I still want to finish it), but I want to listen to the Shakespeare one and In a Sunburned Country. And I wish Mother Tongue was available in audio, but it’s not.

  1. Stephanie

    “I love the way Bryson wanders down interesting byroads as he writes. He rarely stays on one topic for very long. And yet his books are so readable, and so packed with wonderful tidbits of historical information, that the very process of wandering around becomes a large part of the charm.”

    Love this because it is SO true of his writing. I find myself when reading him sometimes taking notice of how far from the main topic he’s wandered but then just going with it because its all informative and fun. I also agree that his books are best listened to because he’s such a great narrator!
    Stephanie recently posted…REVIEW: Whisper the Dead by Alyxandra HarveyMy Profile

    • Lark_Bookwyrm

      At Home was the first of his books I listened to, and I’ve been hooked ever since!

      I’m still having trouble commenting on your blog (dash it all – I’m sure it’s at my end but I can’t figure out how to fix it!) so here’s what I wanted to say about your review of Whisper the Dead:
      “…paranormally enhanced Regency Era England.” OK, you pretty much had me right there, and the rest of it sounds decidedly up my alley as well. I’ve been pruning my TBR list recently… but I’m putting this series on it, because it just sounds so much like something I will love.