When writing nonfiction for young readers, it’s never a bad idea to start with someone cutting off his arm. It’s a definite grabber, and, as Candace Fleming tells us in this rich and unflinching biography, THE RISE AND FALL OF CHARLES LINDBERGH (Schwartz & Wade/Random House, 384 pp., $18.99; ages 12 and up), the scene sheds light on one of the most famous and controversial Americans of the 20th century. What happened is simple enough: In the Minnesota woods in the summer of 1861, Lindbergh’s grandfather, a recent immigrant from Sweden, got his arm caught in a sawmill. The wound was horrific; the man’s beating heart was visible through the hole in his side. He was expected to die. But he refused. By sheer force of will, according to family lore, he was soon out of bed and back to work.
Born 41 years after the incident, Charles Lindbergh grew up enthralled by the tale, coming to see himself in the story. He was born of special stock, he concluded, stronger than others, destined for greater things. Fleming calls this section “The Origin Story,” and that’s fitting. Lindbergh developed an “exaggerated confidence,” as she puts it, that became a kind of superpower. Examples of Lindbergh using and misusing it run like a spine through his story.
Charles was a restless kid, a loner and a terrible student, the kind of person who was only happy when obsessed with a challenge of his own choosing. He had no use for the flashy lure of the Roaring Twenties, but the budding field of aviation — that was worth his time. At 25, he flew solo from New York to Paris, a feat of skill and daring that catapulted him to a level of public scrutiny beyond anything we’ll ever see with today’s crowded 24-hour news cycle. Lindbergh was badly suited to stardom. He looked the part, but was intensely private and socially awkward, and he came to resent the relentless adulation. We sympathize with his discomfort, though it hardly excuses what came next. Nothing in this story is that simple.
As the title promises, this is a full-blown rise-and-fall drama, with enough plot for half a dozen novels. Fleming does a masterly job juggling story lines, from Lindbergh’s marriage and flying partnership with Anne Morrow, to the kidnapping of their son and the resulting media circus, to Lindbergh’s quest to invent machines that could prolong the “right” sort of human life — a demented vision born of his belief in white supremacy. He began spending time in Nazi Germany, impressed with what he saw as strength and order. He parroted Nazi talking points about Germany’s “Jewish problem” and dismissed Hitler’s increasingly violent anti-Semitism as trivial.