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.
Melanie Benjamin’s historical novel, The Aviator’s Wife, offers 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). She easily conforms to the day’s norm and subsumes her life into Charles’ 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 media and begin a pattern of renting houses that continues until after World War II.
Benjamin efficiently jumps time, choosing segments that explore the tensions of Anne’s marriage to a controlling, unexpressive husband, though she herself was raised to have a similarly buttoned upper lip. Charles encourages Anne’s desire to write literature, and she succeeds with best-sellers. Lindbergh’s 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’ 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.