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Thursday, June 1, 2017


One of my book clubs – Red Read Robin, just read the fascinating book Flight of Dreams by Ariel Lawhon. It’s a historical fiction book based on the flight of the Hindenburg and its blowing up and catching fire in 1937. She did extensive research on this before writing her novel. Ninety-seven people were on the Hindenburg, a floating luxury hotel as she referred to in her notes at the end which was owned by Germany. It was what would have been six stories high. Painted swastikas were on the outside. In addition to its thirty-six passengers, the Hindenburg carried sixty-one other persons on its last flight; the regular crew of forty, plus twenty-one additional individuals who were aboard as observers or in training for upcoming assignments to Hindenburg’s sister ship, LZ-130, which was nearing completion.

I had heard of the Hindenburg, but it happened before I was born, so I didn’t really remember much about what I’d heard later so I found the book absolutely fascinating because all the characters she used in her book were actual people on the zeppelin. Some were passengers traveling to the United States. Many were Germans and some were Americans heading home, and there was also the crew.

For three days they floated across the Atlantic Ocean before it blew up just before landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Thirty-six people died, the rest were able to jump out of windows and survived, although many suffered severe burns and/or broken bones.

Lawhon read articles written by several survivors, who said the flight was uneventful, but she didn’t believe them. “I’ve taken enough transatlantic flights to know you can’t place that many people in a small space and not have tension brewing.” The Hindenburg was a huge zeppelin with the passengers on floor A with separate rooms, a dining room, a lounge, a library, a room to drink and smoke in, and one shower room. The crew had rooms on floor B with their own rooms sometimes shared with others, a dining room and restrooms. Below that was where the large trunks and other things were stored including two dogs in crates and the post office.
People down below were fascinated by it.

Ariel Lawton read as much as she could find about those who were on that flight of the Hindenburg, and that’s where the fiction part of the book comes in. She picked various people from that flight who she learned a little bit about, and created her characters. Except for beginning information about this flight, and short inserts towards the end telling how much longer it would be before it blew up, each section had one character’s point of view.

Although there were many characters in the book, she chose five for their own point of view. Each section didn’t list the name, but the job or in one case someone suspicious. One was The Navigator, who was Max Zabel. He’d been working on there for several years. He also had the position of post officer handling the mail, which was dropped off at several spots. He was in love with the Stewardess, but because staff fraternizing was prohibited, he didn’t openly do anything to let others including her know his feelings although his friends suspected.

The Stewardess, Emilie Imhof, was the first female hired to fly on a zeppelin. She was only hired because a lot of wealthy women needed help with their corsets, etc. and they wouldn’t be comfortable with male stewards. Emilie had been a widow for ten years and still grieved for her husband. She was very good at taking care of the passengers. Eventually, she started noticing Max and a beginning romance started, but ended when something happened long before the explosion.

Another point of view was The Cabin Boy, Werner Franz, a fourteen year old boy, who had to clean all the passengers’ shoes that were put outside the door each night as well as a lot of other duties. He was a sweet boy with problems reading. Probably dyslectic, we all decided at the book discussion. He really looked up to Max, who treated him well.

The Journalist was Gertrude Adele. She was a journalist, who had her press pass taken away by the Nazis before she left with her husband to go to America on a book tour. Her husband, Leonhard was twenty years older than her and had written a book. Because she was a reporter, she was very curious about others, and at times said too much. Her husband tried to keep her in hand in a gentle way so she wouldn’t get in trouble with her mouth which she had a way of doing. They had a good marriage and had left their baby back in Germany with her mother.

The last POV was The American, who was suspicious throughout the book. He rarely gave his name and the few times he did (probably because there really was an American on the ship by that name) he avoided or made up what he did. He was always exploring and looking in places he wasn’t supposed to be in. He was a suspicious character throughout especially since we knew the Hindenburg would be blown up at the end. Also, there had been bomb threats, too.

Instead of chapters, it was divided into sections with each POV being presented.  Some were anywhere from five to seven pages long, and some only one page. Even though it was only from five points of views, the conversations with others as well as the observations made by these five people gave a reader a pretty good understanding of the different people on the Hindenburg.

It's hard to believe that so many managed to escape.

The ending was tragic, and I shed tears, but I still I highly recommend the book as one that kept me wanting to keep reading throughout. Some of her characters lived two didn’t. What was amazing is that any one lived at all through that horrible explosive burning of the Hindenburg. The explosion was caused by a combination of hydrogen and thermite used to keep the Hindenburg moving. It was a dangerous combination where the slightest spark could cause it to explode. It would have been much safer if they’d used Helium, but the United States was the only country that had it, and they refused to sell any to the Germans because of what the Nazis were doing.

What do you know of the Hindenburg?


Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Flight of Dreams looks like an interesting read and would make a dynamite movie. Thanks for an informative review.

E. B. Davis said...

Fictionalized versions of true events makes me wonder about the survivors and/or victims and their families--how do they strike those who lived through them or have descendants alive? Do any of them ever sue the authors for slander or leading people to believe some version of the "truth?" I'm sure the book was fascinating, but at the same time, is it creating drama that upstages the real events? I know there have been a lot of "recreations of historical events" in fiction. As an author, I would hesitate before doing this for fear of inciting some wrath from the relatives.

Gloria Alden said...

Margaret, I think there were movies made of this, but it was a long time ago. When I looked for pictures, many of them were pictures from the movie or movies. I didn't download those
only the ones taken 80 years ago of the real Hindenburg.

E.B. my sister wondered about this,too, especially The American, who was not a nice person.
The others wouldn't be a problem because there were nothing negative about them. The author
read books about this that other authors had written, but not fictionalized. Maybe because
it happened 80 years ago, it isn't as much of a problem. I wouldn't write one, either.

Holly said...

My father (1901-1970) was at the scene in Lakehurst. He was a firefighter and a first responder sent there in case of emergency and to assist with landing. He told stories about it. Tragic.

Warren Bull said...

I have seen footage of the event. It is dramatic to say the least.

KM Rockwood said...

I am too young to have been around when this disaster occurred, but my first job was in commercial aviation in New York, the same market area, and stories of the Hindenburg were rampant, especially as cautionary tales against becoming too comfortable with safety procedures.

Shari Randall said...

This sounds like a fascinating book, Gloria. It sounded like such a luxurious experience to slowly travel over the ocean - I can only imagine the views. How different from today's air travel - but we certainly have the advantage in speed and safety.

Gloria Alden said...

Holly, it was tragic. Even many of those who survived were badly burned. It must have been equally horrifying for the first responders. In the fictional account in this book, she wrote about that, too.

Warren, I believe that. I haven't seen footage and I'm not sure I'd want to see it.

KM, I don't know when I first heard about the Hindenburg. It happened the year before I was born. I can see with your first job, why safety procedures would be important.

Shari, the views were described in the book. I think you would find it very interesting even though it ended so horribly. At the time, I think it was faster than traveling by ships. The mostly wealthy travelers were treated to gourmet meals, and had stewards and the one stewardess to wait on them. There was a nice lounge and a library with lots of books, too.Certainly it wasn't like being cramped in tight seats on an airplane today.

carla said...

Gloria, this sounds very interesting. What a horrible event in our history. The idea of the Hindenburg was innovative, and I can't help wish we had something like it that was SAFE, but the event also serves as an important warning.
Thanks for sharing.

Gloria Alden said...

Carla, today the Goodyear blimps are quite safe. I've never been up in one, but when they were made and kept in Akron, Ohio not too far from me, we often saw them passing overhead. When that happened we got excited about it. I'm not sure if they're still made in Akron or not, but their base is now in Carson City, California, I heard. If the United States had sold Helium to Germany, this wouldn't have happened, but the U.S. was nervous about what the Nazis were
planning, and didn't want to give them anything that might cause them to drop a bomb on our

Kait said...

I learned to skydive at Lakehurst Naval Air Station. That is was the Hindenburg's last port of call. At the time (the 1960s) there was a commemorative plate and the the mast was still in place. I think part of the hanger was too, or maybe all, I don't recall. Now I understand the site has been more or less recreated and it a small museum open to the public from time to time. Back in my day, you had to find someone who would point you and look for it.

My parents often spoke of listening to the reports on radio. The event was well before my time, but I do recall landmark anniversary photos in newspapers and I think in Life or Look Magazine. PBS did a wonderful narrative report not too long ago that I managed to catch where the story was told largely through narration behind contemporary photos and/or sketches.

I was in the Goodyear Blimp when I was in college. It used to fly out of Watson Island near Miami Beach. The most amazing thing about being in the gondola was that it was silent and there was no feeling of motion. It was like being in a cloud. If the Hindenburg was like that, it must have been like floating across the Atlantic. A most peaceful journey and a most horrific end. Unbelievable that so many people could have survived.

Holly, the PBS show made it a point to highlight the contributions of the first responders that night. Nothing of that magnitide had happened before and truly, those first responders had to invent the rules as they went along and they were remarkably successful.

Gloria Alden said...

Kait, sky diving is not on my list of things to do. I'm not afraid of flying, but sky diving would scare me to death, and there's not much that frightens me. Of course, I'm not surprised that you did that, because you do scuba diving, too. I think the Hindenburg was like the Goodyear blimps ain that it was silent and they didn't feel motion. I hope PBS shows that show again so I can see it.