Energetic look at the World War I ace’s early exploits through the prism of exciting modern changes in America.
In his passionately sympathetic biography, Ross (War on the Run: The Epic Story of Robert Rogers and the Conquest of America’s First Frontier, 2009, etc.) finds in Eddie Rickenbacker (1890-1973) a subject as brash, unassuming and heroic as the young American nation at the turn of the 20th century. The author admires the fact that the son of poor, German-speaking Swiss immigrants had so much going against him in the early years and overcame the obstacles through sheer hard work and determination. Luck, another quintessential American ingredient, favored him, as well as the ability to fudge the record when necessary, such as he did about the events surrounding the death of his belligerent father in 1904 after picking a fight with another laborer. At 13, Rickenbacker quit school and went to work, becoming head of the household and breadwinner. A natural leader, Rickenbacker adored mechanical tinkering and invention and parlayed his work in a machine shop into becoming “mechanician” at the Oscar Lear Automobile Company, racing state-of-the-art Frayer-Millers. “Engines have always talked to me,” he asserted, demonstrating his nearly “mystical” ways with them as he began proving himself a winner in races throughout the country. With the United States propelled into the European war in 1917, Rickenbacker talked his way past bigotry against German-Americans, his lack of a gentlemanly education and an eye injury and began flying lessons at Tours Aerodrome, essentially teaching himself in the fragile, unreliable Nieuports that the Germans outclassed in their mightier Albatroses. Aerial dogfights provided plenty of sobering danger and led to the deaths of many of his closest colleagues. In a few short months, Rickenbacker, with 26 kills, was a national hero.
Ross sweeps readers along in Rickenbacker’s thrilling tale.