FICTION: HISTORY IMAGINED
The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin (Delacorte Press)
Anne Morrow Lindbergh and her aviator husband, Charles, attracted attention on an order comparable to that garnered by Princess Diana. The golden couple couldn't go out in public without being mobbed. The kidnapping and murder of their first child was called "The Crime of the Century" and spurred legislation that categorized kidnapping as a federal crime. Melanie Benjamin is adept at using the well-documented facts of their lives; what she is after, though, and where "The Aviator's Wife" succeeds, is in putting the reader inside Anne's life with her famous husband.
Anne is a senior at Smith College when, over the Christmas of 1927, she meets Col. Lindbergh. The previous May his flight from New York to Paris had made him the toast of the world. He is a guest of her parents in Mexico City, where her father is the U.S. ambassador.
Both are painfully shy, but Anne is drawn to the man with "a face made for statues and history books." Seeing him as more hero than human, she finds herself, "breathless, reeling from the blinding, golden brilliance of his presence."
She accepts his invitation to join him on a short flight and is hooked on the man, and on the sky. Her final semester at Smith feels mundane after the excitement of Christmas. She invites him to her graduation; he attends.
His proposal is businesslike, their wedding private. The next day, honeymooning on a boat, Lindbergh informs his new bride "there are tins of food down in the galley, so I'd like my breakfast. After you clean up — you must scrub out the head with bleach, of course, every day — I'll lift anchor."
His peremptory tone sets the tenor of the marriage. Charles dictates the rules, and Anne falls in line. He teaches her celestial navigation so she can be his co-pilot. She earns a pilot's license and, at his insistence, becomes the first woman to earn a glider pilot's license. He is obsessive and domineering; she is compliant.
Benjamin writes in an author's note that while the basic timeline of the book is accurate, her goal is uncovering emotional truths. Biographies and other publications — like the Lindberghs' diaries — are the factual skeleton of the story; its mind and heart are the work of the novel.
Anne's outward appearance is that of the docile wife, a role she played to perfection. Lindbergh forbids her to express grief after the murder of their son, to him as well as to the public. In 1940, at his behest, she writes "The Wave of the Future," an attempt to explain her husband's isolationist views. The Roosevelt administration attacked the booklet as "the bible of every American Nazi, Fascist, Bundist and Appeaser;" the couple went from being celebrated to being ostracized. Not until the 1955 publication of her collected essays, "Gift from the Sea," does she fully establish an independent identity.
Benjamin's first person narrative is remarkable in capturing the contradictions that form Anne's life. She is intelligent and well educated, but when it comes to her relationship with her husband, she is an invertebrate. The question that haunts the reader is why she would put up with her husband's high-handed ways. The answer is found in Anne's musings as her husband is dying: "I look out the window and ponder, once more, how to remember this man who was never merely a man, least of all to me.
As Lindbergh is dying, Anne is confronted with previously unsuspected news: her husband has fathered seven children with three other women. It is a blow that makes her reconsider all that she'd thought about her marriage, and one that could have turned her bitter. But it doesn't, and it doesn't in a way that makes the reader wonder if the stronger half of the couple wasn't actually Anne.