Free Air, Lewis’ 1919 novel adapted from a magazine serial, is the story of Claire Boltwood, a Brooklyn society girl. In a fit of indecision over marriage to a young man of promising prospects called Jeff Saxton, Claire has lured her father, the overworked Henry Boltwood, to one of his company’s outposts in Minneapolis. Once there, she convinces him that they should have her roadster shipped to them, and proceed to call on some cousins, the Eugene Gilsons, in Seattle, with Henry as chaperone. Setting out from Minneapolis, Minnesota, somewhere between Schoenstrom and a certain Gopher Prairie, they make the acquaintance of one Milt Daggett, the son of a poor country doctor and now garage owner, who aids them after they encounter difficulties on the road. Milt is smitten with Claire and decides to follow her in his own car across the country to Seattle. Although this sounds a simple enough undertaking, Free Air clearly illustrates just how fraught an early twentieth century cross-country journey by motor car was.
The book is divided into two parts. The first covers the Boltwood / Daggett journey from Minnesota through the Dakotas, Yellowstone, Montana, Idaho, and finally into Washington state. Trouble brews when Claire’s presumptive fiancé, Jeff Saxton, makes an appearance in Montana, having overtaken the Boltwoods and Dagger. The second part of the book 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 sometimes it feels like a good history of American road transportation would be a helpful reference. I have read that Lewis invented his own automobile types, but haven’t been able to find a good source explaining his motives (the Teal bug, for example, or the Gomez-Deperdussin, are not named for real companies, of which there was a surprising proliferation in the first decades of the twentieth century). 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 typical vein of Lewis’ early work. Apart from the motoring backdrop, and the depiction of early 20th century Seattle, there isn’t much that is extraordinary to recommend this book except to Lewis’ most ardent admirers and completists. For more interesting works, his writing of the 1920s (specifically the big five novels: Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, and Dodsworth), as well as a few later novels (It Can’t Happen Here, Cass Timberlane, and Kingsblood Royal) and some of Lewis’ short stories will be of greater interest. But there is a charm in this book, even as there is an awkwardness in its writing and composition which might surprise the reader of today. 3.5 of 5 stars.
Originally reviewed 9 March 2011.
Find a copy of Free Air at AbeBooks.com.