"At every page a guilty secret bobs up; at every page Lawhon keeps us guessing. Who will bring down the Hindenburg? And how?”
New York Times Book Review
On the evening of May 3rd, 1937, ninety-seven people board the Hindenburg for its final, doomed flight to Lakehurst, New Jersey. Among them are a frightened stewardess who is not what she seems; the steadfast navigator determined to win her heart; a naive cabin boy eager to earn a permanent spot on the world’s largest airship; an impetuous journalist who has been blacklisted in her native Germany; and an enigmatic American businessman with a score to settle. Over the course of three hazy, champagne-soaked days their lies, fears, agendas, and hopes for the future are revealed.
Flight of Dreams is a fiercely intimate portrait of the real people on board the last flight of the Hindenburg. Behind them is the gathering storm in Europe and before them is looming disaster. But for the moment they float over the Atlantic, unaware of the inexorable, tragic fate that awaits them.
Brilliantly exploring one of the most enduring mysteries of the twentieth century, Flight of Dreams is that rare novel with spellbinding plotting that keeps you guessing till the last page and breathtaking emotional intensity that stays with you long after.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)|
About the Author
Ariel Lawhon is the author of The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress and cofounder of the popular Web site SheReads.org. She lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband, four sons, and black Lab—who is, thankfully, a girl.
Read an Excerpt
It’s a bad idea, don’t you think?” Emilie asks, as she stands inside the kitchen door, propping it open with her foot. “Striking a match in here? You could blow us all to oblivion.”
Xaver Maier is young for a head chef, only twenty-five, but he wears the pressed white uniform—a double-breasted jacket and checkered pants—with an air of authority. The starched apron is tied smartly at his waist, the toque fitted snuggly to his head. He gives her that careless, arrogant smirk that she has begrudgingly grown fond of and puts the cigarette to his lips. He inhales so deeply that she can see his chest expand, and then blows the smoke out the open galley window into the warm May evening. “Ventilation, love, it’s all about proper ventilation.”
The way he says the word, the way he holds his mouth, is clearly suggestive of other things, and she dismisses him with a laugh. Xaver Maier is much younger than Emilie and a great deal too impressed with himself. “At the moment, love, it’s about aspirin. I need two. And a glass of water if you can summon the effort.”
The kitchen is small but well ordered, and Xaver’s assistant chefs are busy chopping, boiling, and basting in preparation for dinner. He stands in the center of the melee like a colonel directing his troops, an eye on every small movement.
“Faking a headache?” he asks. “Poor Max. I thought you’d finally come around. We’ve been taking bets, you know.”
“Don’t,” she says, flinging a drawer open and shuffling through the contents. She has made it perfectly clear that all discussion of Max is off limits. She will make up her mind when she is good and ready. “I went to the dentist yesterday, and the left side of my jaw feels like it’s about to fall off.” She leaves the drawer open and moves on to another.
“Usually when a woman tells me her jaw is sore I apologize.”
Emilie opens a third drawer. Then a fourth. Slams it. “I had a tooth filled.” She’s impatient now. And irritated. “Aspirin? I know you keep it around here somewhere.”
He follows behind her, shoving the drawers shut. “Enough of that. You’re as bad as the verdammt Gestapo.”
“What?” She looks up.
Xaver reaches behind her head and lifts the door to a high, shallow cabinet attached to the ceiling. He pulls out a bottle of aspirin but doesn’t hand it over. “I’m glad to hear you don’t know everything that happens aboard this airship.” He taps the bottle against the heel of his hand, making the pills inside rattle around with sharp little pings. “There’s still the chance of keeping secrets.”
“You can’t keep secrets from me.” She holds out her hand, palm up. “Two aspirin and a glass of water. What Gestapo?”
Xaver counts them out as though he’s paying a debt. “They came because of the bomb threats. Fifteen of them in their verfickte gray uniforms.”
“When?” She takes a glass from the drying board above the sink and fills it with tepid water. Emilie swallows her pills in one wild gulp.
“Yesterday. They searched the entire ship. Took almost three hours. I had to take the security officers down the lower keel walkway to the storage areas. The bastards opened every tin of caviar, every wheel of aged Camembert, and don’t think they didn’t sample everything they could find. Looking for explosives, they said. I was out half the night trying to find replacements. And,” he pauses to take a long, calming drag on his cigarette, “you can be certain that frog-faced distributor in the Bockenheim district didn’t take kindly to being woken at midnight to fill an order for goose liver pâté.”
She has heard of the bomb threats of course; they all have. Security measures have been tightened. Her bags were checked before she was allowed on the airfield that afternoon. But it seems so ridiculous, so impossible. Yet this is life in the new Germany, they say. A trigger-happy government. Suspicious of everyone, regardless of citizenship. No, not citizenship, she corrects herself, race.
Emilie looks out the galley windows at the empty tarmac. “Did you know they aren’t letting anyone come for the send-off? All the passengers are waiting at a hotel in the city to be shuttled over by bus. No fanfare this time.”
“Should be a fun flight.”
“That,” she says with a grin, “will have to wait until the return trip. We’re fully booked. All those royalty-smitten Americans traveling over for King George’s coronation.”
“I’d take a smitten American. Preferably one from California. Blondine.”
Emilie rolls her eyes as he whistles and forms an hourglass figure with his hands.
“Schwein,” she says, but she leans forward and gives him a kiss on the cheek anyway. “Thank you for the aspirin.”
The kitchen smells of yeast and garlic and the clean, tangy scent of fresh melons. Emilie is hungry, but it will be some time before she gets the chance to eat. She is lamenting her inadequate early lunch when a low, good-humored voice speaks from the doorway.
“So that’s all it takes to get a kiss from Fräulein Imhof?”
Emilie doesn’t have to turn around to identify the voice. She is embarrassed that he has found her like this, flirting—albeit innocently—with the ship’s resident lothario.
“I worked hard for that kiss. You should do so well,” Xaver defends himself.
“I should like the opportunity to try.”
The matter-of-fact way he says it unnerves her. Max looks dapper in his pressed navy-blue uniform. His hair is as dark and shiny as his shoes. The gray eyes do not look away. He waits patiently, as ever, for her to respond. How does he do that? she wonders. Max sees the bewilderment on her face, and a smile tugs at one corner of his mouth, hinting at a dimple, but he wrestles it into submission and turns to Xaver.
“Commander Pruss wants to know tonight’s dinner menu. He will be dining with several of the American passengers and hopes the food will provide sufficient distraction.”
Xaver bristles. “Commander Pruss will no longer notice his companions when my meal arrives. We will dine on poached salmon with a creamy spice sauce, château potatoes, green beans à la princesse, iced California melon, freshly baked French rolls, and a variety of cakes, all washed down with Turkish coffee and a sparkling 1928 Feist Brut.” He says this, chin lifted, the stiff notes of dignity in his voice, as though citing the provenance of a painting and then squints at Max. “Should I write that down? I don’t want him being told I’m cooking fish and vegetables for dinner.”
Max repeats the details verbatim, and Xaver gives a begrudging nod of approval.
“Now out of my kitchen. Both of you. I have work to do. Dinner is at ten sharp.” He shuffles them into the keel corridor then closes the door. Xaver might be an opportunist—he would gladly take a real kiss from Emilie if she were to offer one—but he knows of her budding affection, and he’s more than willing to make room for it to bloom further.
Max leans against the wall. His smile is tentative, testing. “Hello, Emilie. I’ve missed you.”
She’s certain the chef is on the other side listening. She can smell cigarette smoke drifting through the crack around the door. He would like nothing better than to dish out a portion of gossip with the evening meal. And Emilie would love to tell Max that she has missed him as well in the months since their last passenger flight. She would love to tell him that she has very much looked forward to today. But she doesn’t want to give Xaver the satisfaction. The moment passes into awkward silence.
“Listen . . .” Max reaches out his hand to brush one finger against her cheek when the air horn sounds with a thunderous bellow from the control car below them. The tension is broken and they shift away from each other. He shoves his hands in his pockets and stares at the ceiling. “That is such a hateful noise.”
Emilie tugs at the cuff of her blouse, pulling it over the base of her thumb. She doesn’t look at Max. “We’re about to start boarding passengers.”
“I really must see if they can do something about that. A whistle, maybe?”
“I should get out there and greet them.”
But she’s already backing away, coward that she is, on her way down the corridor to the gangway stairs.
Gertrud Adelt has no patience for fools. In her opinion, Americans fit the description almost categorically. The one sitting across from her now is drunk, leaning precariously into the aisle and singing out of tune. He shouts the words to some bawdy drinking song as if he were dancing on a bar instead of sitting in a bus filled with exhausted passengers. His voice is bombastic, loud and abrasive, and mein Gott, please make him stop, she thinks. She turns her pretty mouth to her husband’s ear and quietly asks, “Can’t you do something?”
Leonhard looks at his watch, then up at the heavily listing American. “He’s been drinking since three o’clock. I’d say he’s managing quite well, all things considered.”
“He’s happy to be leaving Deutschland. There’s no crime in that.” The look he gives her is tinged with understanding. Who wouldn’t want to leave this country? Anyone but the two of them, most likely. As it stands, the thought makes her ache. Their son, little more than a year old, is in the care of Gertrud’s mother at the insistence of a senior SS officer. Blackmail by way of separation. Return as promised, or else. In recent months, the Gestapo has grown adept at making sure that valued citizens do not defect.
The Adelts have spent the better part of their day waiting in the lobby of Frankfurt’s Hof Hotel. Waiting for lunch. Waiting for a telegram from Leonhard’s publisher. Waiting for the government to change their minds and revoke permission for the trip altogether. At four o’clock the buses arrived to shuttle them to the Rhein-Main Flughafen airfield. But then they waited while their luggage was searched and their papers checked and double-checked and triple-checked. The first indication that Gertrud was ready to snap came when her bag was weighed.
“I’m sorry, Frau Adelt,” the customs officer informed her. “Your bag is fifteen kilos over the twenty-kilo limit. You will have to pay a fine of five marks for every extra kilo.”
Gertrud looked around the bar, eyeing each of the men waiting to board the buses. She sniffed and rose to her full height. “Then it’s a good thing I weigh twenty kilos less than the average passenger.”
The customs officer was not amused, and Leonhard handed over the seventy-five marks before Gertrud could further complicate the process. By the time they were finally allowed on the bus and took their seats, she was exhausted and entirely without coping skills to deal with fellow passengers.
Now, the long muscles along her spine feel ready to snap. They are tight and aching, strained by her rigid posture over the last few hours. The American’s voice grinds against her skull like mortar against pestle. The back of her eyes hurt. Gertrud fights the irrational urge to reach across the aisle and strike his face. She tucks her hands between her knees instead.
Something outside the window catches the American’s attention and he drifts into silence. Gertrud sighs, squeezes her eyes shut, and leans her head against Leonhard’s shoulder. The bus rumbles along steadily for a few moments, vibrations coming up through the floor and into their feet. They are jostled by the occasional pothole—the broad paved streets of Frankfurt have fallen into disrepair, but fixing them hardly seems a priority to anyone. They soon pass a sign with a white arrow directing them to the airfield. The bus veers to the left, and an excited murmur runs through the passengers. Somewhere, behind them, a child cheers. Gertrud feels a twinge of anger that some other child is allowed to make the voyage while hers is forced to stay behind. The American, however, is energized by their near arrival and belts out the second verse of his drinking song. He leans toward her, eyes crossed, chuckling, and she recoils from his sour breath.
Leonhard grabs her wrist just as she’s about to lash out. “No,” he says. “Be good.” Her husband is twenty-two years older than she is, but time has not dulled his strength one iota. He puts two broad hands around her waist and lifts her up and over his lap. Leonhard deposits her neatly by the window, his body a wall between her and the American.
Gertrud offers a wry smile. “Good? You know that being good isn’t part of my skill set.”
“Now is not the time to talk about your many attributes, Liebchen. Humor me this once. Please?”
She can still hear the American, but she can no longer see him, and this is a great mercy. She gives Leonhard’s hand a squeeze of gratitude, then leans her forehead against the cool glass of the window. She tries not to think of Egon and his chubby, dimpled fists. His bright blue eyes. The soft brown hair that is just starting to coil above his ears. Gertrud thinks instead of the career she has worked so hard to build and how it lies in rubble behind her. Her press card having been revoked by Hitler’s ministry of propaganda. Troublemaker, that’s what they have branded her. In reality she has simply been a question asker. She is a good journalist. But she has never been a good rule follower. Or a good girl for that matter, despite Leonhard’s admonition. Yet, even now, she cannot bring herself to regret the choices she has made this year.
A few minutes later the bus slows and turns onto the airfield. A great hangar looms in front of them, taller, wider, longer than any structure she has ever seen. And moored just outside is the D-LZ129 Hindenburg, almost sixteen stories tall and over eight hundred feet long. From their vantage point, Gertrud can barely make out the airship’s name written aft of the bow in a blood-red Gothic font, and farther back, the massive tail fins emblazoned with their fifty-foot swastikas. The irony is not lost on her. They will make this trip, but only under a watchful Nazi eye.
“Mein Gott,” Leonhard whispers, placing one large, calloused hand on her knee.
The zeppelin floats several feet off the ground, moored on either side by thick, corded landing lines. The only parts of the actual structure that touch the ground are the landing wheels and a set of retractable gangway ladders that lead up and into the passenger decks. They will board there, directly into the behemoth’s swollen silver belly. Gertrud stops herself from cracking jokes about Jonah and his infamous whale, but she does feel very much as though she’s about to be swallowed whole.
The ground crew scurries around preparing to cast off while the flight crew stands in a long, neat line near the gangway waiting to greet them. The American chooses this moment to finish his drinking song with one last, raucous burst.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I don't usually put reviews of books up here (I have my own blog for that, and you can find my full review here http://drchazan.blogspot.com/2016/03/titanic-flight.html), but I'm pretty upset that this book isn't showing up on any of the "best of 2016" lists. This is probably going to be my #1 favorite book of 2016, and I think it deserves far more attention than it is getting. The pacing is the perfect mirror of the flight itself, and you might find your heart rate increasing as you get to the climax, as well as at a loss for breath until you get to the last few (very short) chapters. I promise you, if you like historical fiction, you will never regret reading this book. It is, as I say in my headline, historical fiction at its very best!
While I knew about the Hindenburg, I didn't know a lot about. I didn't think there were that many survivors that's for sure. And I definitely didn't know there were more than one dirigible that was used during the war. This was an entertaining and interesting story, sometimes a little slow, but your talking about only so many passengers and only so much space and three days, almost four of time to occupy. I bet there were many people who would have loved to seen Hitler's latest monstrosity he was using to goad everyone with come crashing down. I really liked the Olympic story as well. While it is true, we will never really know the reason for the crash, this seemed like a fascinating and reasonable account for what could have happened. Huge thanks to Doubleday Books for approving my request and to Net Galley for providing me with a free e-galley in exchange for an honest review. I enjoyed reading the book and would definitely pass it on.
I feel like I live under a rock. I had no idea of the Hindenburg and I am ashamed to say that the WWII era is one of my favorite. Thanks to Ariel Lawhon I now know and am excited to want to learn more. Ariel Lawhon does an amazing job introducing the characters. I love how the chapters are broke into smaller chapters told by the different characters. There was never any doubt who was telling the story and what their part in the flight was. I found this made it very easy to follow and enjoy the entire story. It was interesting how the various characters perceived events differently and what their rolls in those events are. While this is a fiction book, it was interesting to me that the characters names are the real names of those who flew on the Hindenburg. Flight of Dreams is the perfect mix of fiction with a lot of history and true mixed in. I learned so much about the era, the people, and the flight yet the book was a story. The story tugged at my heart and opened my eyes. I definitely will recommend this book.
Events like the Hindenberg disaster have always fascinated me. This is a totally believable narrative .
Slow start ends well