Review: Novel probes fiery end of airship era

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Images of the Hindenburg's fiery crash landing in 1937 are seared into memory, framing an unforgettable end to the era of great, vulnerable airships.

In film and still photographs, the sleek gray German dirigible that crossed the Atlantic from Frankfurt, Germany, is seen sailing above the Manhattan skyline. Little Nazi swastikas adorn its fins. A darkening sky greets its arrival at a Lakehurst, N.J., landing site.

An explosive fireball erupts.

Ariel Lawhon's fictional recreation of the disaster, "Flight of Dreams," goes inside the Hindenburg in search of elusive elements — the spark of motivation that set off the flaming explosion, the meaning of the flight to its passengers and crew, their fate in the grim finale.

Lawhon builds the narrative on facts — she uses real names and biographical details about those aboard the Hindenburg — then propels the story forward with the thrust of fiction. This is a novel made all the more readable by weaving its way through a riveting historical event.

It marks Lawhon's second book of fiction based on a 1930s-era news story that captivated the country. Her first, "The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress," gave new twists to the mysterious disappearance of New York State Supreme Court Judge Joseph Crater.

In "Flight of Dreams," the main characters aboard the Hindenburg — variously identified as the navigator, the journalist, the stewardess and the cabin boy, among others — appear in separate sections as their lives and stories intersect and the flight of the airship becomes precarious. There is intrigue, budding romance, complicated relationships, gnawing fears and whispered hopes.

The Atlantic crossing takes place amid increasing Nazi terror against Jews on the continent, and a sense of foreboding rides with the airship. The potential peril is most acute as it affects the back-and-forth flirting and growing passion of the navigator, Max Zabel, and stewardess, Emilie Imhof, the only female crew member and a lovely widow with a secret.

Others aboard have secrets, too, and following them keeps the narrative afloat. As these stories crisscross, however, not all do so smoothly. Purposely or not, the relationship of Zabel and Imhof at times seems frustratingly off-key. She's keen; he bumbles. A reader may even wonder if Zabel is really worthy of her trust.

These individual portraits, though, are like miniplots unfolding inside the overarching story of the great, doomed Hindenburg itself. Inevitably "Flight of Dreams" may be viewed as a "Titanic" of the skies. Lawhon's novel, however, needs no such comparison. It has ample emotional fuel to sail on its own, even knowing its spectacular end.

Online: http://www.ariellawhon.com


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