In May 1937 the pride of Nazi Germany, the Hindenburg airship, travelled from Frankfurt to Lakehurst, New Jersey, where it dramatically exploded into flames as it attempted to land, killing 35 of the 97 on board. Ariel Lawhon takes the bones of this story and turns it into a tense, suspenseful historical thriller.
Each of the characters in this gripping novel, both crew and passengers, are drawn from real people who travelled that day, even down to their names. But through a combination of imagination and research, Lawhon has created an intriguing story.
As the zeppelin prepares for take-off from Frankfurt, we’re introduced to a fascinating cast of characters, reminiscent of an Agatha Christie novel, as they prepare for their journey. There’s the reluctant journalist couple – Gertrud is an outspoken maverick who has already upset the notorious minister of propaganda Goebbels; the glamorous stewardess, Emilie, is courted by the handsome navigator, Max, but she is hiding a secret from the Nazis that means she may never see him again. There’s the loveable 14-year-old cabin boy Werner who we can’t help but hope will be among the survivors; the eccentric circus acrobat; the rich German expat couple travelling with their three children. And at the heart of the drama is the mysterious American who is intent on revenge – but why and on whom?
Despite the fact that we know the fate of the Hindenburg from the first pages, the countdown to the explosion is nail-biting. We’re told in the first chapter that there are “3 days, 6 hours, and 8 minutes until the explosion” and are reminded of the timing throughout, building up the tension.
Lawhon has long been fascinated by the tragedy of the Hindenburg. “It [the novel] is the result of my short-term love affair with that spectacular moment in history,” says the author. The floating luxurious air ship would fly the rich and famous over the Atlantic but what happened on that fateful day in 1937 halted the use of airships for passenger travel. The Hindenburg disaster is an event in history that continues to enthrall, with the real cause of the zeppelin’s fate still unknown and countless theories, books and movies spawned by its demise. But Flight of Dreams is as much about the human characters and their individual stories as it is about the tragic explosion.
“They said it was an uneventful flight…” Lawhon tells us in her author’s note. “But here’s the problem: I don’t believe them. Ninety-seven people traveled on a floating luxury hotel for three days over the Atlantic Ocean. The events that took place on board might not have been explosive – at least not until the end – but I doubt they were uneventful.”
We become absorbed in each of the character’s stories and await their fates with foreboding. As well as its rich character portrayal, the narrative oozes interesting historical details – the clothes, the drinks, the food, and of course the zeppelin – are all well-researched and compelling. Anyone who loves historical fiction, will love Flight of Dreams.
Ariel Lawhon is the author of The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress and co-founder of the popular website SheReads.org. She lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband, four sons, and black Lab—who is, thankfully, a girl.