Free Air by Sinclair Lewis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Free Air, Lewis' 1919 novel adapted from a magazine serial, is the story of Claire Boltwood, a Brooklyn society girl who has elected to make a cross-country journey via motor car with her father, Henry Boltwood, as chaperone. Passing through Minnesota, they make the acquaintance of one Milt Daggett, the son of a poor country doctor and now garage owner, who is smitten with Claire and elects to follow her across the country to Seattle.
The book is essentially divided into two parts. The first two thirds cover the Boltwood / Daggett journey from Minnesota through the Dakotas, Yellowstone, Montana, Idaho, and finally into Washington state. The final third shifts gears, as it were, to address how the blossoming relationship between Claire and Milt plays out against the backdrop of pre-World War I Seattle society. The primary tensions between Claire's nouveau riche familial ties and Milt's hard work nobility are drawn fairly crudely, as is typical in early "pot boiler" era Lewis.
The depiction of road travel, now taken for granted by Americans, in the second decade of the motor car is interesting, though some of the detailed references are missing, and others are obscured by the passage of time. The vehicles themselves, for one, are completely unfamiliar except, one imagines, to the automotive historian (a Teal bug, for example, or a Gomez-Dep are completely unfamiliar to me). Still, this part of the book is interesting, consider that it takes place some thirty years before the advent of the interstate highway system.
The resolution of the burgeoning romance is relatively straightforward and largely predictable, again in the vein of Lewis' early work. Apart from the motoring backdrop, and the depiction of early 20th century Seattle, there isn't much to recommend this book except to Lewis' most ardent admirers and completists. For more interesting works, his writing of the 1920s (Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry) are more to be recommended. But there is a charm in this book, even as there is an awkwardness in it's writing and composition which might surprise the reader of today.
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