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One Summer

Bill Bryson centers on the summer of 1927 – a seminal season, but not an innocent one.

(Page 2 of 2)

In May 1927, a Michigan man frustrated by his financial plight blamed local school taxes for much of his difficulty. To make himself feel better, the man, who lived in the small town of Bath, packed a school basement with dynamite and other explosives. Then, early on a typical school day, he detonated 500 pounds of explosives, killing 44 people, most of them children.

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“The Bath massacre was the largest and most cold-blooded slaughter of children in the history of the United States, yet it was forgotten by the wider world almost at once,” Bryson writes.

Part of the cause of the collective memory-dump: Lindbergh’s flight, which catapulted the aviator to glory despite his taciturn nature. Bryson notes The New York Times dedicated its first full four pages to Lindbergh’s landing in Paris on May 21, 1927.

As for Prohibition, it “shut down the fifth-largest industry in America” and removed “$2 billion a year out of the hands of legitimate interests and put it in the hands of murderous thugs.” All the while, alcohol consumption increased and the government sank to the level of “denaturing” alcohol produced for other uses, leading to some bootleg liquor poisoning – a government misstep that led to the deaths of American citizens.

President Coolidge worked four hours a day and slept 11. Babe Ruth, an aging playboy believed to have seen his best days, reeled off a record-setting home-run spree. Along with boxers Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney, Ruth and the 1927 “Murderers’ Row” Yankees electrified sports fans.

This all played out as Henry Ford embarked on the most expensive and embarrassing mistake of his business career: Fordlandia, the ill-fated Brazilian community developed to produce rubber for Ford’s car company.

Brazil sold Ford 2.5 million acres of rainforest for $125,000 and turned him loose to plant rubber trees. Ford clear-cut the land, causing unforeseen agricultural problems. At the same time, Ford hired unqualified overseers to create a town, too. Instead, theft, disease, failure, and the inevitability of nature asserting its will – think of a T. Coraghessan Boyle novel and you get the idea – humbled Ford, who, after 20 years, quietly returned the land to the Brazilian government and shuttered the venture.

In the end, Ford sold the land back to Brazil and absorbed losses estimated in the range of $20 million.

Bryson, while playful, never shies from a dose of blunt truth.

Ford, he reminds, possessed a boundless antipathy for Jews, Roman Catholics, Wall Street, fat people, liquor, tobacco, bankers, and lawyers, among many other peoples and things.

The man behind the popularization of cars and the assembly line “had the additional distinction of being the only American mentioned favorably in Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler’s memoir of 1925,” Bryson writes. “Hitler, it was said, kept a framed photo of Ford on his wall.”

Such vignettes fill “One Summer,” the best kind of general-interest book: fun, interesting, and something to learn on every page.

Erik Spanberg is a Monitor contributor.


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