Lawhon uses the epic burning of the Hindenburg on May 6, 1937, as the fulcrum for her extraordinary tale. Hovering over the landing strip in New Jersey after a journey begun in Germany, passengers expecting an uneventful landing face instead the terror of a burning airship. Whether espionage or accident, no one will ever know, though conspiracy theories abound. The fiery climax serves as an exclamation point to individual situations, friends and foes facing certain death as they tumble from the luxury airship, proud black swastikas curling into cinders.
A few key characters frame the drama in chapters featuring each individual throughout the three-day trip to the destination in New Jersey: the Stewardess; the Navigator; the American; the Journalists; and the Cabin Boy. A complete picture gradually takes shape from these varying narratives, one filled with treachery, betrayal, ambition, and a love affair skewered on the uncertainty of Germany’s growing ambitions. There are signs of increased security, the airship thoroughly searched before boarding, an officer scanning the airship for any anomalies. Even in the midst of luxurious accommodations for wealthy passengers, threats of mischief must be taken seriously, the
Hindenburg proudly bearing Germany’s distinctive insignia.
Passengers and crew go about their business, a network of stewards attending to travelers’ needs, the crew manning stations and changing shifts.
The bustle does not quite obscure the tension accompanying the vessel between Germany and the US, Hitler’s great machine on the cusp of striking terror into any that obstruct its path. But there is talk among passengers and crew.
Journalist Gertrud Adelt, traveling with her husband, Leonhard, watches as Col. Fritz Erdmann of the Luftwaffe mingles with passengers, studying faces, making conversation. Gertrud was forced to surrender her press credentials prior to boarding the
Hindenburg. Even worse, her young son has been kept in Germany until his parents’ return. Her practiced eye notices everything- and everyone--greedy for a story, a familiar excitement abruptly shed when memories of her small son intrude, the perfect hostage.
Navigator Max Zabel, a precise and thoughtful man, has fallen in love with the first--and only--stewardess aboard the airship. Widow Emilie Imhof is tempted by this intense, brooding man but fears the depth of his passion. No stranger to the undercurrents sweeping through her country, Emilie harbors secret plans, now riddled with indecision as Max applies his suit the few times they are alone. This brief romantic interlude transcends the circumstances in which the lovers find themselves, a glimmer of hope amidst chaos even while treachery blooms in the dark. Each character plays a critical role, the drama brought vividly to life as the clock ticks on, only one of them conscious of betrayal at hand, a sly manipulator on a singular mission.
Passengers gather for meals and drinks in the smoking cabin: the journalists, the American, a married couple with an adolescent daughter and two rowdy sons. The daughter, Irene, will share an innocent kiss with the Cabin Boy, Werner Franz, who hustles between staterooms and crew quarters, overhearing private conversations
and often called upon for favors. There is an American heiress and a stranger Gertrud Adelt calls “the American”, an able opponent as he parries each thrust she makes to learn his identity, as obsessive and secretive as the journalist.
An event long relegated to newspaper archives is brought fully to life through the fragments of these characters’ histories and motivations, a well-researched blend of fact and fiction. The result is as immediate and heart-stopping as the moment when the
Hindenburg catches fire, the helpless and the doomed falling through space or burned alive. It is a fascinating rendition of tragedy made unbearably human, an opening salvo to the distant drums of war on the horizon.