I knew very little about the life of Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, before “The Aviator’s Wife.” I had, as a child, seen the Spirit of St. Louis at the Smithsonian museum. My father is a pilot and we spent many hours in the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. I had even heard of Anne’s book “Gift from the Sea” though I had never read it. An error I plan to correct soon.
I chose to read Melanie Benjamin’s “The Aviator’s Wife” because I read “Alice I Have Been” and was thoroughly enthralled by Benjamin’s storytelling ability—even when the story is a difficult one. There was a road trip I needed to make for work, so I checked out the audio version of the book from my library a few days in advance.
In short, this book tells the story of Charles and Anne Lindbergh’s very public marriage. It recounts all of the big events: their marriage, their pioneering air travel, the kidnapping and death of their child, and Charles’ unfortunate foray into politics. Those are all events that would put pressure on even the most solid of marriages.
The other story Benjamin tells though, and the one most compelling to me, is about the private relationship the Lindbergh’s had away from the flashing bulbs of photographers. It’s where we get to imagine what actually happened in the private conversations of, in today’s terms, mega stars.
Benjamin begins her tale in 1974 with Charles dying, but then we go back to the beginning of Charles and Anne’s relationship in the 1920s. Thus, the book follows a pattern of moving from the past to 1974 and back. I wasn’t sure how I would like this structure, the knowing where the story ends. However, when you’re dealing with a couple like the Lindbergh’s the end is already known. By revealing the moments before Charles’ death in 1974 in short tidbits between the longer trips to the past, Benjamin helped to increase my discomfort with their marriage. I knew she stayed married to him, even as you heard how he treated her throughout the early years. Truth be told, I was incensed that she did.
The Lindbergh marriage is not a love story. Some may argue that there was some love, but I feel very strongly it is the story of two people who entered into a contract. Charles needed a partner to help him continue conquering the skies and public life. Anne needed someone to recognize her for who she was and not just as the ambassador’s daughter. I could argue you with myself all night about whether Anne actually got that from Charles or if, in fact, she was just made over in the image Charles wanted.
Melanie Benjamin excels at telling stories which leave you wondering what emotions you’re feeling and whether they are the right ones. There was the feeling of pleasure when Anne would defy Charles—her spouse. Vindication when Anne took control of her life, found her voice and didn’t just wait for Charles to come home every few months. Disgust when Charles would talk sweetly to Anne because somewhere in my gut I knew it was because he wanted something. Yet, Charles and Anne were married, spouses. In the end, I felt a bittersweet sadness.
Not long after I finished this book, a commercial came on TV one evening. I can’t even remember which company the ad was for, maybe an airline. What I did note about the commercial, which contained a thank you to past aviators, was that Orville and Wilbur Wright made the list, Amelia Earhart made the list, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made the list, but missing from it was Charles Lindbergh. Furthermore, so was Anne Morrow Lindbergh—a pioneering female aviator. This also made me very sad. I hope Melanie Benjamin’s book will bring Anne’s accomplishments back to public knowledge.
After writing this, I found out that “The Aviator’s Wife” was optioned for film. Congratulations to Melanie Benjamin.