Book Review: Novel probes fiery end of airship era


Images of the Hindenburg’s fiery crash landing in 1937 are seared into memory, framing an unforgettable end to the era of great, vulnerable airships.

Ariel Lawhon’s fictional recreation of the disaster, “Flight of Dreams,” goes inside the Hindenburg in search of elusive elements – the spark of motivation that set off the flaming explosion, the meaning of the flight to its passengers and crew, their fate in the grim finale.

Lawhon builds the narrative on facts – she uses real names and biographical details about those aboard the Hindenburg – then propels the story forward with the thrust of fiction. This is a novel made all the more readable by weaving its way through a riveting historical event.

The main characters aboard the Hindenburg – variously identified as the navigator, the journalist, the stewardess and the cabin boy, among others – appear in separate sections as their lives and stories intersect and the flight of the airship becomes precarious. There is intrigue, budding romance, complicated relationships, gnawing fears and whispered hopes.

The Atlantic crossing takes place amid increasing Nazi terror against Jews on the continent, and a sense of foreboding rides with the airship. The potential peril is most acute as it affects the back-and-forth flirting and growing passion of the navigator, Max Zabel, and stewardess, Emilie Imhof, the only female crew member and a lovely widow with a secret.

Others aboard have secrets, too, and following them keeps the narrative afloat. These individual portraits, though, are like miniplots unfolding inside the overarching story of the great, doomed Hindenburg itself. Inevitably “Flight of Dreams” may be viewed as a “Titanic” of the skies. Lawhon’s novel, however, needs no such comparison. It has ample emotional fuel to sail on its own, even knowing its spectacular end.


Flight of Dreams

By Ariel Lawhon

Doubleday, 336 pages