Lindbergh. The name conjures up the internationally famed hero and the “Crime of the Century.” But it’s also the name of the first woman to obtain a glider pilot’s license: Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the Lone Eagle’s wife for 45 years. During their early marriage, especially after the kidnapping and murder of their baby, the press hounded the Lindberghs, hoping for a shred of insight to share with a nation hungry for heroes in the thick of the Depression. That our fascination lingers is exhibited by the Lindbergh documentaries and books that appear each year.
Melanie Benjamin’s historical novel “The Aviator’s Wife” assuages that hunger with an intimate examination of the life and emotional mettle of Anne Morrow, the daughter of a wealthy banker-turned-diplomat. Married in 1929, soon after graduating from Smith College, Anne is shy and unformed (as the real Anne admitted in the first of five diaries she published later in life). Newlywed to the man “so famous that instead of the groom receiving the traditional congratulations, it was I who was thumped on the back,” Anne easily conforms to the day’s norm and subsumes her life into Charles’s grander, heroic priorities.
But the novel begins much later, in 1974, with Charles Lindbergh’s final flight home to the Hawaiian island of Maui, where he wants to be buried. Anne has recently obtained letters he wrote to an unspecified number of German women who bore him a total of seven children. Angry at this betrayal yet guilty of her own infidelity, she sits beside his makeshift sickbed on the airplane, asking herself about their lives and the nature of their love.
The bulk of the novel shows scenes from their past. Anne recounts learning to fly, and navigating and charting new routes around the world. She describes how Charles helped foster the burgeoning airline industry. The story also details the tragedy that spotlights Anne as a mother and compels a nation to mourn, while both parents grieve in incompatible ways. After the trial, the Lindberghs move to Europe to avoid the frenzied press and begin a pattern of renting houses that continues until after World War II.
The book is peppered with historical figures whose shoulders they brushed, such as “the Great Aviatrix” — presumably Amelia Earhart. There are glimpses of Joseph Kennedy, Harry Guggenheim, Henry Ford, Hermann Goering, Adolf Hitler and an amusing visit with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Benjamin also presents, through Anne’s rationalizing eyes, Charles’s interest in eugenics and his admiration of the efficient Germans, which results in his being labeled a Nazi sympathizer.
Benjamin efficiently jumps time, choosing segments that explore the tensions of Anne’s marriage to a controlling, unexpressive husband, although she was raised to have a similarly buttoned upper lip. Charles encourages Anne’s desire to write literature, and she succeeds with the bestsellers “North to the Orient” and later “Gift From the Sea.”
Anne’s diaries and books display an intelligent, literate and complex woman, elegant and subtle in her prose and poetry, supremely conscious of her role, and aware of her strengths and weaknesses. But those qualities are less apparent in this fictionalized treatment. Benjamin focuses on Anne’s self-doubt compared with Charles’s authoritative assuredness. She emphasizes how the difficulties of fame unite them in real intimacy and how Anne struggles to find her way beyond her husband’s shadow.
“The Aviator’s Wife” is an engaging novel, less so for the portrayal of Anne’s often overwrought emotional journey than for its inherently fascinating record of all things Lindbergh. Benjamin’s thorough historical and cultural research augments the authenticity of this intimate story and will probably draw the interest of book clubs.
Kim is the author of “The Calligrapher’s Daughter.”
THE AVIATOR’S WIFE
By Melanie Benjamin
Delacorte. 402 pp. $26