I am a huge fan of Jen Bryant’s books. Her prolific career includes books like The Trial, A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, Ringside, 1925, and many others. I always enjoy Jen’s books because they involve a great deal of research and often take place in my home state of NJ, or surrounding states. When I started this blog series I immediately thought of Jen and I am thrilled that she was kind enough to contribute this week’s post.
The Trial is one of my favorite books because it follows the Lindbergh baby kidnapping from the viewpoint of a teen living through the news cycle at the time. The Lindbergh baby kidnapping has always fascinated me. Last year, while attending the Monmouth Junior Science Symposium, I was privileged to hear a talk by Robert Ferguson, a retired crime scene investigator. His talk, “Real Life Crime Scene Investigation vs. TV’s CSI” focused on the science behind crime scene investigation, particularly the advances that have been made over the last 75 years or so. The case he chose to showcase was the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. I loved that I was at a science symposium and had a student turn around and whisper, “Just like in The Trial!” a few times during the talk.
That’s why I am glad that Jen Bryant decided to write about The Trial for her guest post today. I love learning about the STEM work behind an author’s writing!
Technology & History: Telegraphs, Transatlantic flights, and a Missing Toddler.
It’s probably not the best etiquette to begin this post by quoting a previous one, but since I was never big on etiquette anyway, I’m doing just that:
“Science and literature, math and writing—I think sometimes we focus too much on the differences between these disciplines and not enough on their beautiful cohesiveness. It’s fascinating to explore how each subject overlaps and enhances the others.” (J. Khoury, 12-13-12 post)
Thank you Jessica Khoury! I couldn’t have said it any better, and Jessica provides the perfect segue into my own discussion of how science and technology literature and writing complement and enrich one another. And I’ll even take it one step further: In the writing life they are, in fact, interdependent, and in many cases, indistinguishable.
When I write a work of historical fiction (The Trial: my novel based on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, for example) the role of science, math and technology in the course of human history becomes hyper evident. When I visit schools to talk about that book, I pause in the middle of my presentation and ask the students and teachers to consider this: in 1927, LESS than one hundred years ago (which, in the course of human history, is a half-blink), no one had yet flown solo across the Atlantic Ocean. This year, 2012, we’re retiring the Space Shuttle! Putting those two things side by side should help us realize the ever-accelerating rate of technology and how it affects everything we do.) At the time that Charles Lindbergh—a shy mechanic, a “barnstorming” 25-year old pilot who was unknown to the American public—took off from New York’s Roosevelt Field and began the 3,500-plus mile flight to Paris, many people doubted it could be done. When he landed, “astonished” and sleep-deprived at Paris’s Le Bourget air field, the era of modern transportation had begun.
But so much more happened on that day and because of that flight. Transatlantic communication had recently improved, and for the first time ever, a written message could be sent across the globe, from continent to continent, in just a few minutes. (Again, stop to think that today, we can instantly email our photo, using only our phone, to China or Ecuador.) Why is this so important? What does this have to do with writing and literature? Well, for one, Charles Lindbergh became, for all intents and purposes, our first true “celebrity.” Expecting to see no one but the airfield crew upon his landing in Paris, his “astonishment” was as much because of the thousands who gathered along the runway and stormed the plane, once he’d landed. Upon his return to the U.S., huge crowds lined the sidewalks along Broadway in NYC to see him honored in a tickertape parade.
Think about that . . . . Today, we have thousands of people whom we consider “celebrities” in fields from entertainment to politics to athletics. And yet—the concept of “celebrity” itself is based on the ability to share an image and a message widely and instantaneously. No communication capacity—no sharing of image and message—no celebrity. See what I mean?
My writer’s awareness, and hopefully my readers’ awareness, of this interdependence between technology and human events deepens as the novel progresses. Lindbergh’s life changes forever on that day. His quiet mechanic’s life is exchanged for a life in the flashbulbs of reporter’s cameras and a lack of privacy that he finds deeply disturbing. He accepts a job with the government, marries the Ambassador to Mexico’s daughter, and they have a son, Charlie Junior. Craving some sort of “normal” family life (for they are, in fact, the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie of their time), they build a weekend home in the woods of rural Hopewell, NJ, where they escape the demands of their celebrity status as often as possible.
Then, one windy night, March 1st, 1932, the Lindbergh’s nanny goes into the child’s bedroom to check on him and finds an empty crib. Between the hours of 7:30 and 10pm, someone placed a home-made wooden ladder against the side of the Lindbergh’s house, climbed into the child’s bedroom, lifted him out of the crib, put him into a sack, climbed down the ladder holding the sack, and drove off. They left the ladder, muddy footprints, and the first in series of more than a dozen ransom notes.
This is human tragedy at its most intense—and yet all of it is true. And all of it, the kidnapping and the way the criminal investigation unfolds in the months to come (I would argue,) happens because of the presence–and the lack of–technology. Lindbergh’s historic flight, his immediate and ubiquitous fame, and the hunger of the American public for news of any kind to distract them from their daily worries during the Great Depression, combine to create a media frenzy around this event. That’s one view. You can say, I think, that Lindbergh’s fame (unwelcomed and unwanted as it was) made his first-born son the target of a heinous crime.
And yet . . . it took more than two years for the local, state, and federal investigators to locate and apprehend a suspect. Today, with advanced methods of fingerprinting, chemical testing, and DNA analysis, a detective could send a stray hair from the
baby’s nursery floor to the crime lab in Trenton, and be knocking on the suspect’s door in less than a day. Period. End of case. But because there existed very few reliable scientific methods of doing criminal investigation at that time (especially because the crime scene was not immediately quarantined and members of the household trafficked through the room and the house for hours after the kidnapping occurred) based on physical evidence, and because no one actually SAW who climbed into that window on that windy night in 1932, this case, and the subsequent execution of the suspect Bruno R. Hauptmann, the German carpenter accused of kidnapping and murdering “Little Charlie,” continues to be the subject of fierce debate.
This is just one example of how human history and technology are enmeshed, intertwined and interdependent. I could cite dozens more, just from my own novels and biographies. As Sarah pointed out in her initial post for this blog, many of us who write or who teach writing for a living, do not consider the humanities and the sciences as separate entities; on the contrary, as we research our topics and create characters, settings, and dialogue for stories spanning the decades and centuries, we’re constantly made aware of their interdependent nature. In doing my research, I cross back and forth over innumerable imaginary boundaries between disciplines that our educational system classifies as either an art/ humanity or a science. In reality, however, these boundaries are blurry waves of light— moveable, overlapping, and often indistinguishable.
Jen Bryant writes biographies, poetry, picture books, and fiction, including the novels Pieces of Georgia and Kaleidoscope Eyes and the picture book biography A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, illustrated by Melissa Sweet and awarded a Caldecott Honor. Jen and Melissa have recently collaborated on A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, about the self-taught African American painter who was also a wounded WWI veteran. A graduate of Gettysburg College, Jen grew up in Flemington, NJ but now lives in Pennsylvania with her family. To learn more: jenbryant.com