Charles Lindbergh’s story is deeply rooted in the American psyche. In 1927 the lanky, tow-headed, young man with a winning smile flew solo across the Atlantic from Long Island to Paris in 33 hours. Melanie Benjamin’s novel, The Aviator’s Wife, focuses on the woman he married, Anne Murrow. It spotlights her ambivalent relationship with Charles as well as her hard-won transformation from a woman lost in her husband’s formidable shadow to an accomplished person in her own right. It is Anne who is at the core of Benjamin’s narrative.
Benjamin gives structure to her story by beginning it in 1974 when Anne accompanies Charles as he is flown in a sick bed from Connecticut to his distant home, a hut on the Hawaiian island of Maui. He is near death; his emaciated body has been ravaged by leukemia. Benjamin uses scenes from this journey and from his last days in Maui as a frame to tell in flashbacks the tale of the Lindberghs’ 47-year marriage.
When Anne marries Charles in 1929 she is the overly-sheltered, self-effacing daughter of a wealthy diplomat. She has recently graduated from Smith but has no personal plans – other than to continue writing in her diary. Predictably, she is enamored with Charles Lindbergh, whom she meets at the Mexican embassy, the temporary home of her father who is ambassador to Mexico.
From the outset of their marriage the young couple is relentlessly hounded by the public and the press. And from the beginning Anne conforms to Charles’s priorities, allowing him to control her. She proves herself a fearless woman when, according to his wish, she learns to fly and becomes a licensed pilot. Early in the marriage it is obvious that America’s hero is other than he seems. He is a self-absorbed person who single-mindedly pursues his own goals. Emotionally he is an ice man. He loves Anne on his own terms, but perceives her as an appendage to himself.
Ann’s increasing misgivings about Charles exacerbate during and in the aftermath of the unspeakable horror that was to define her life. As the world knows, only five years after the amazing trans-continental flight, Anne and Charles’s firstborn – a 20-month-old boy – was taken from his upstairs nursery. The remains of his body were discovered some weeks later in a field near the Lindbergh mansion. The chapter covering the loss of the baby is Benjamin’s prime achievement both for the kidnapping’s inherent interest and for her take on Anne’s and Charles’s reactions. Benjamin captures the pathos in their behavior, conversation and thoughts.
As life moves on they will continue to grieve in incompatible ways; this is a tragic thread that runs through the novel. Five more children are born to the Lindberghs. While they are a joy to Anne, they are a source of tension between her and Charles. He is a strict and distant parent with little interest in his offspring, except to control them from afar. Most of the time Charles is away from home, working for Pan Am at points around the world to chart and navigate new flight routes. Without a doubt, his voluntary and lengthy absences from her feed Anne’s self-doubt.
The peripatetic Lindberghs move often both within the U. S. and abroad. For a time they live in London and later, in Germany. As war clouds gather in Europe Charles becomes an open admirer of Hitler and an avowed isolationist. For this the public and the press turn on their once “fair-haired” hero, and a tarnish overlays his once golden reputation.
During this period he coaxes Anne into writing a short book that emphasized “America First.” She later regrets not thinking for herself. Surprisingly, Charles encourages her to write, and when parenting duties allow, she does so. In the 1950s she published the very personal A Gift from the Sea, a classic in Women’s Studies even today.
A short time before Charles’s death, Anne learns that over the years he carried on long-standing affairs with three German women and fathered a total of seven children. Though Anne herself has not been faithful to her marriage vows, this information both astounds and infuriates her.
Near the book’s conclusion there is another compelling scene from 1974 centered around Charles’s deathbed. His pain and fear are acute, but so hurt is Anne by the discovery of his unfaithfulness that she cannot let him die in peace. She hurls accusations at him; his piercing eyes stare at her from beneath a smattering of wispy white hair. He pleads with her for forgiveness, saying the other women meant nothing. Anne remains devastated that she and her children had not been enough for her husband.
While a writer of history is constrained to depict events as they happened and to repeat only documented conversation, Benjamin, as a writer of historical fiction, has had more freedom. Not only has she included imagined situations and people and re-arranged time lines, she has revealed her characters’ thoughts. Readers will want to keep in mind that The Aviator’s Wife, like all historical fiction, is more fiction that history.