Monday, September 21, 2015

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

  fpoDavid McCullough's THE WRIGHT BROTHERS ranks as one of our favorite audio books to date.  Husband and I listened to it while we made our most recent trip to our cabin and back.  Since we took a side trip for an extra day on the way home, and then one day after getting home had a quick trip to our daughter's place in Green Bay, we were able to finish the entire book in five days.  Not often that we spend that much "confined" time together  Russ, who used to have his private pilot's license (and has always regretted giving up that expensive hobby) was fascinated by all the details of actual flights -- the changes in wings, engines, and such.  He would often explain to me why certain things were being tried or why something was successful while something else was not.  Let's just say he was caught up in the science of the book and the determination of the two Wright brothers.  I, on the other hand, was pulled in by the family story.  As I have mentioned in a recent post, I knew a little bit about Katherine Wright's sacrifice to help her brothers.  I found myself learning much more about her and her father Bishop Wright, and it quickly became apparent that Katherine was the glue that held the family together. Especially notable was the care that Katherine gave Orville after the September 17, 1908 plane crash that left Lt. Selfridge dead and Orville with multiple broken bones.  Rushing to his hospital bed after the accident, Katherine spent many nights there, knowing that Orville would rest better with her present.  Many speculate that Orville would not have recovered without his sister's attention.

The book is narrated by David McCullough himself whose voice can be slightly gravelly and choppy, but I am glad he is the one who told the story.  It is easy to get caught up in the story of each flight, each advancement and the passing years without realizing all the intense research and documentation that went into laying out this historical gem.  Having the author himself narrate, kept bringing that thought to my mind.  Both in teaching English and library skills, I taught kids about research basics and always included a focus on the difficult work of using primary sources (the actual letters, newspapers, and documents of a person's life or an event).  As I listened to the book, I often notice when McCullough referred to or quoted a family/personal letter, a newspaper headline, a telegraph message, and even correspondence between competing aviators.  He must have spent several years combing all the primary documents available and he did a marvelous job of piecing the years and the family's lives together.

Both Russ and I noticed the intense competitive drive of the Wright duo and their single-minded purpose which drew on individual strengths.  Yet both brothers continued to possess simple humility and gentleness.  They were loyal to each other and to their family.  At one time, Wilbur set aside much of his aviation work for a short time to help his minister father (Bishop Wright) through a conflict with his church.  I was surprised to learn that the Smithsonian Institution actually financed a competing aviator's work and for years that caused a rift between the Smithsonian and the successful Wright duo.  Later in life, Orville sent the original plane to England rather than give it to the Smithsonian.  It was only years later that it returned to America.  Also of great interest to me were Orville's comments in the 1940's, shortly before his death, after he had seen aviation used to drop bombs. On a lighter note, several times we both broke out laughing as McCullough referred to newspaper reporters who completely fabricated stories, telling lies about the brothers' social lives in France and exaggerating their accomplishments.  Other times, other reporters published stories claiming their flights never happened.  A dishonest, headline seeking press?? Imagine that. LOL!

If you like nonfiction packed with details, but also with a human story, then I recommend THE WRIGHT BROTHERS.  If you've seen or read McCullough's JOHN ADAMS or THE JOHNSTON FLOOD, you know what kind of writer he is.  Grab the book or the audio version and learn about our founders of flight.  Many libraries in our library system have the print book, and while there were many holds early in the summer, it appears that demand is slowing down.  However, when I checked the ebook version and the audio books, lots of holds still exist.  Check your own libraries if you have an interest.  I waited for at least two months for my copy to come through, but it was certainly worth the wait.

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