BookPage Nonfiction Top Pick, May 2015
Nowadays, the title of a nonfiction book is almost invariably followed by a phrase hyping the contents, including words like incredible, survival or secret. No such subtitle is needed for two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough’s latest book, The Wright Brothers, even though it contains all three elements.
Of course, McCullough’s name alone virtually guarantees bestseller status. Author of Mornings on Horseback and The Path Between the Seas and acclaimed biographer of Harry Truman and John Adams, he has earned his reputation as one of the best (and most-read) historians of our time. By turning his attention to the two shy brothers from Dayton, Ohio, who pioneered the age of flight, he guarantees that millions will learn a story that is, well, incredible.
“Shy” doesn’t quite do justice to the brothers (an armchair psychiatrist would likely conclude that one or both had Asperger’s syndrome), but McCullough does his best to bring out the personalities of two men virtually indistinguishable in the public eye. (If you don’t know which brother was which, join the crowd.) For McCullough, it’s not all propellers, wind tunnels and sand dunes: By emphasizing the Wright family dynamics, with a particular focus on their father, Bishop Milton Wright, and ever-supportive sister, Katharine Wright, he humanizes their story and makes it more relatable.
As for the technical side, readers won’t be disappointed. McCullough traces the development of powered, piloted flight from the brothers’ earliest interest in a crude flying toy to hard-won success at Kitty Hawk. Amazingly, in hindsight, it was another five years after the historic Dec. 17, 1903, flights before the brothers achieved worldwide acclaim. McCullough is at his best recounting this period, when fish-out-of-water Wilbur travels to France to disprove the doubters and Orville almost loses his life in a crash near Washington, D.C.
The Wrights didn’t totally shun fame, but they didn’t chase it either. The story of the brothers’ single-minded quest to master the skies is a compelling one, made even more compelling by McCullough’s sure-handed storytelling skills. He knows the prose doesn’t need to soar—the brothers and their accomplishments provide all the soaring that’s necessary.