When we met to discuss David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers, our primary reaction was amazement that we knew so little about people whose names we know so well. We were in such agreement that our discussion seemed quiet, even awestruck. If we had any criticism about the book, it was that we wanted more — not about flight and airplanes but about the Wrights themselves, about men whose efforts and invention drew crowds of observers and dominated newspaper headlines of their day but who remained enigmatic even then.
Our discussion started out with a lot of statements, followed by questions. How brave they were—facing not only the dangers of flight but the ridicule of their vision. How focused they both were. Did we ever imagine them actually sewing the wings? How well researched the story is. The brothers’ letters were amazing. One of us had imagined Kitty Hawk as a lovely field, not isolated and harsh. Look at the picture of their camp kitchen, rows of neat and orderly supplies, evidence of Orville’s likely obsessive compulsive disorder. Yet still we wanted more pictures and had to remember the era. We were amazed that they even had a camera and took their own pictures. We debated whether or not they were risk-takers; and we decided they were, though not careless. We thought them self-motivated, stubborn and brave.
One of us thought it was nice to read about a functional family for once. We still wondered why the boys never married. Why are there no references to romance? We discussed the Edwardian values and the reality of sex and pregnancy in an era that did not yet have easy birth control. Another member reminded us that their sister Katharine was a school teacher and school teachers were often not allowed to marry. After the meeting, another member discussed the real threat of sexually transmitted diseases. We were happy that Katharine was given so much credit and treated as an equal by her family, though we were mystified by Orville’s rejection of her when she decided to marry.
When we discussed the similarities and differences between Orville and Wilbur, one of us believed that Orville was deferential to his older brother. Another believed that Wilbur was so meticulous that had he been flying with Lieutenant Selfridge, the fatal accident would not have occurred. Orville was distrustful of Selfridge and probably allowed that to distract him. One of the discussion questions prompted us to consider whether or not the Wright brothers were heroic, so we discussed the meaning of the word. For most of us, heroic means not just courage and bravery but saving lives. At least one of us still felt that the brothers’ perseverance for an ideal that impacted so many lives was heroic.
In his youth, one of us had visited the Wright Brothers house and their bicycle shop, moved by Henry Ford from Dayton, Ohio, to Ford’s Dearborn, Michigan museum complex in 1936.[i] Although he remembered the experience fondly, he had not realized their significance until he had read the memoir. After the meeting, another member commented about how little we often know about famous people, citing early aviator Charles Lindbergh, who invented a medical device “to save his dying sister-in-law.”[ii]
Although I enjoy all of our discussions and the varying perspectives, discussing The Wright Brothers was particularly calming and uplifting. We agreed that the book was educational and easy to read. We discussed much more than I can capture here — and still less than we could have. If you haven’t already, I recommend you read the book and join the discussion!
- Other Works Discussed:
- The Wind Rises (2014) Film directed by legendary Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki: a beautifully animated look at the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the man who designed Japanese fighter planes during World War II.
- The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (2013) by Daniel James Brown (we compared and contrasted this with The Wright Brothers).
- Circling the Sun (2015) by Paula McLain: a fictionalized account of the life of early female aviator Beryl Markham.
- You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me (2017) by Sherman Alexie (audiobook recommended by Kristine).
- Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (2009) by Robin Sloan (recommended by Cheryl).
[i] Web accessed 9-13-2017: https://www.thehenryford.org/collections-and-research/digital-collections/artifact/373441/