I generally don’t write much about nonfiction, but I recently read a slim volume about Chuck Yeager’s experience breaking the sound barrier in the Bell X-1 in 1947: Across the High Frontier by William R. Lundgren. The version I have is a mass market published by Bantam in the late-1980s. The title page is missing, which, when I discovered it, really bothered me for a few reasons, but mainly because it made it more difficult to determine when, exactly, it was published. Fortunately there is the Internet. Its original publication date was November 2, 1955.
The missing title page is only one of the oddities of the book. The book is a “would you look at how great this guy is (and how long suffering his wife and family are)?” story that, while appealing in a Hollywood manner, wears thin after the first several dozen pages. It is presented in three distinct parts—1. Yeager’s selection as the X-1’s test pilot, 2. Yeager’s World War 2 experience, and 3. Yeager’s experience flying the X-1 and ultimately breaking the sound barrier. The oddity of the presentation is twofold. The first is the use, in sections one and three, of a second person perspective. It is presented as though the reader is Chuck Yeager—
“That’s all you’d done since1943, dogfighting. You could take care of yourself in almost anything that would fly. You could wax almost every one of the flight test pilots with whom you worked. You had a rough idea of what you could do.”
The second person narrative was disruptive—I had to reread a few passages to figure out exactly who “you” was—until I got comfortable with it. And I really did get comfortable with it. Every time my eyes saw “you” my brain read “Chuck”. The other oddity was the author’s use of dialogue, which decreased its credibility rather than increase it. There were conversations between Chuck Yeager and other pilots. Chuck Yeager and engineers. Chuck Yeager and his wife. Chuck Yeager and nearly everyone. All conversations I can’t imagine the author heard, which made me doubt, and doubt is the death of any literature—fiction or nonfiction.
With that said, I actually enjoyed the book. I didn’t know much about Chuck Yeager before I opened its pages, and the most interesting section of the book was the second, which detailed Mr Yeager’s World War 2 experiences. He was shot down over France in 1944. His P-51 was shot down on March 4, and he escaped across the Spanish border March 28. The detail is interesting—there is an enjoyable scene as he tries to communicate with a local farmer on the first day, and it rapidly (too rapidly, really) chronicles his journey, with significant French Partisan help, through France across the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain.
The third section also had its moments. It includes some interesting technical aspects of the X-1 in an understandable manner—it only had something like three minutes of powered flight time. There is an exciting scene where Mr Yeager is, for the first time, entering the X-1’s cockpit while attached to the belly of its B-29 escort. The air lashing him as he descended the ladder from the B-29. There is the flight the sound barrier is exceeded. Mr Yeager broke a rib in a horse riding incident a few days prior and successfully hid it from everyone so he could keep his seat in the cockpit.
Across the High Frontier is as flawed a nonfiction book I have read. Its second person narrative is disruptive, and just plain strange. Its inappropriate use of dialogue—dialogue its author never could have heard, and the participants never could have remembered in specific detail—decreased its believability. But. And there really is a “but” here. I enjoyed it. Is it historically accurate? Not sure, really, but I have a feeling at least some of the details are probably a little inaccurate—personal interactions, specific meals, etc. The timeline is very likely accurate since it matched the detail from several online sources, and its overall story is really interesting.