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1927 Was a Truly Astonishing Year in America

Have you ever considered what took place in America during the year 1927? Probably not. Two recent books now bring that wild, wacky year into clearer focus. If you read either one you might develop a new-found appreciation for what was an unusual year in American history.

“The Tilted World” by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly (William Morrow, 303 pages, $25.99)

If you surveyed some passersby and asked them to name the most destructive river flood in American history, most of them probably wouldn’t know the right answer. It happened in 1927. The swollen Mississippi River had burst through the levee system. About 27,000 square miles, an area 50 miles wide and 100 miles long, was flooded and under as much as 30 feet of water.

Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly have written a novel, “The Tilted World,” that begins in the town of Hobnob, Miss. This was in the spring of 1927 as the rain poured down and the mighty river surged ominously.

It is at the height of Prohibition. Tiny Hobnob was awash in bootleg liquor. The bootlegger Jesse Holliver is selling some high quality shine. The booze was actually being made by his wife, Dixie Clay. She labored at the stills while grieving over their infant son who died during the scarlet fever epidemic.

Enter Ham Johnson and Ted Ingersoll, federal revenue agents who wanted to find what had become of the two missing agents they had already sent there. Ingersoll encounters an orphaned baby. He ends up bringing the child to a young mother he heard about. Her child had died. That’s right, he brought the orphan to Dixie Clay.

The levees will surely fail. And where are those missing revenue agents? The authors know how to build the suspense. Tom Franklin is a novelist who writes dark gnarly fiction. His co-author, and partner in life, the poet Beth Ann Fennelly, exerts a softening influence on this story. Dixie bonds with her new baby. Her love for this child sustains her as the flood engulfs almost everyone that she holds dear.

“One Summer — America, 1927” by Bill Bryson (Doubleday, 511 pages, $28.95; Unabridged audio book, 14 compact discs, running time 17 hours, $45).

Bill Bryson devotes more than 500 pages to recounting what took place during “One Summer — America, 1927.” Bryson is best known for writing “A Walk in the Woods,” his humorous account of hiking the Appalachian Trail.

In that summer of 1927, aviator Charles Lindbergh made the first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean to Paris. Overnight he became an instant celebrity. Did you know that he could not see anything in front of him? In that plane his forward vision was totally obscured.

Babe Ruth was busy breaking his own home run record that summer. Al Capone was at the height of his gangster success. President Calvin Coolidge was immensely popular and eccentric. He loved to dress up as a cowboy. Bryson weaves all these crazy stories and personalities into one seamless history.

I listened to the audio-book version of this book, too. Bryson does a fabulous job of reading it. It took stamina to flawlessly read his more than 500-page book out loud. In an interview Bryson told me that it took him eight days to record it. The summer of 1927 only lasted for four dazzling months.

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