Thrilling history of American flight

“The Aviators: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh and the Epic Age of Flight”

by Winston Groom.

National Geographic, 2013. $30.

That the imagination that conceived “Forrest Gump” could conjure up fresh ways to tell stories of American history is astonishing. A decade after “Forrest Gump” appeared “Shrouds of Glory,” the first of Winston Groom’s five Civil War histories.

In three books, he took on the War of 1812 and World Wars I and II. He imagined three novels before “Gump” and two after. Style and structure in all his fiction and nonfiction are exhilaratingly fast-paced.

And now, out of the wild blue yonder of Groom’s imagination, Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle and Charles Lindbergh come winging into the epic age of flight, flying flimsy machines, delivering mail, thrilling spectators at air shows, acing German planes in two wars, flying the Atlantic and making major contributions to the salvation of the world in World War II. In “The Aviators,” Groom enables his readers to experience all that with thrilling immediacy.

Aviators took risks, living “in risky times.” The last two lines of World War I-era aviators’ toast heightens the danger for pilots throughout a century of their history: “And here is a toast to those dead already, and here’s to the next man to die.”

Groom’s epic story is a tribute.

“They weren’t merely great pilots, but visionaries, gurus, entrepreneurs and ultimately heroes of the highest order. They would become masters of the sky and hold a place in history that was never before and may never again be equaled.”

And “no one has left in his wake a greater example of devotion to the concept of flight, critical aviation knowledge and sheer raw courage than Rickenbacker, Doolittle, and Lindbergh.”

As the reader follows Groom’s vivid stories of each of those aviators separately and as they cross paths over the years from the 1920s into the late 20th century, a full sense of aviation’s unique contribution to history accumulates.

Lindbergh steals, quite naturally, the limelight. “His Halo Turned into a Noose” tells the story of the decline and fall of the darling of fate and of the ill-fated consequences of his character and behavior, until he rose again like the phoenix in the imaginations and adoration of the world public. As retired aviators, all three continued to serve the nation in various high-profile capacities until death in old age.

As for Groom, he imagines subjects that are likely to keep him young. Readers of all his fiction and nonfiction might well feel inclined to testify that he is fast becoming a national treasure. Forrest Gump would agree.

David Madden’s 13th work of fiction, “The Last Bizarre Tale,” a collection of stories, will appear in August.