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CARPE LIBRUM: Getting an inside look in NC’s famed Wright brothers

Fans of aviation or North Carolina history will love this book about NC’s historic “first flight.”

Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is time to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title and maybe even an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, my aim is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

hiddenimages

Hidden images: Discovering Details in the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk Photographs, 1900-1911
By Larry E. Tise
The History Press, 2005 pgs. 144

There are few events that have occurred within the borders of North Carolina and carried greater impacts than Wilbur and Orville Wright’s first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903. Specifically, they are credited with the first controlled, sustained flight of an aircraft. But, for the sake of our license plates, it is shortened to “First in Flight.” I have to confess: For me, the Wright brothers are the wallpaper of my childhood.

I remember a visit to Kitty Hawk and getting the big spiel about it happening there and what it meant. I remember a trip to the Smithsonian and much brouhaha over the early flyer and the Wright brothers. Frank Trimble, professor at UNCW, composed a stage musical about the brothers that played on the mainstage of Thalian Hall. Frankly, I learned more about their work from that than from either museum trip. But I don’t really have the fascination with aeronautics that so many do.

However, I do have a passion for North Carolina history. And, well, I can’t really like North Carolina history without being proud of Wilbur and Orville Wright and the fame they brought to a forgotten corner—Kitty Hawk. What makes Larry E. Tise’s book, “Hidden Images: Discovering Details in the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk Photographs 1900-1911” interesting is it really is far more about the area and people than about aeronautics.

Actually, it is about playing detective and historian: finding photo plates and negatives, cleaning them up, and trying to identify where they were taken. I have only seen the Outer Banks of North Carolina since the connections of bridges and substantial roads to the mainland. However, those are more recent innovations and prior to that the only way to reach the Outer Banks was via boat. So what the Wright Brothers have documented, unexpectedly, was a community lost to time. When  researching what the area looked like then, it is not difficult to understand what attracted settlers: In addition to the wind and soft sand, there is little the Wright brothers could crash into. Also, there are so few people who live there, the likelihood of others spying on them and trying to steal their work and ideas is pretty minimal.

My concept of the Outer Banks is a fairly successful, pretty commercial enterprise that capitalizes strongly on a tourism-driven economy. Looking at the pictures of the time makes it hard to reconcile them with the places I have visited as an adult. Small wooden buildings, many of which look like little more than shacks, were the norm. Weather-beaten faces populate porches. Signage is minimal. Yet, the author has tracked down names and family connections of many of the people in the photographs; thus painstakingly reconstructing the close-knit web that embraced the Wright brothers during their time at Kitty Hawk.

So we meet the people who invited them to come to North Carolina for their historic tests, but also we meet their families: wives, children, siblings. The names that populated these narratives before have become fully realized—and what is more, the support system that enabled it all is also understood. We tend to forget as we celebrate the innovators, they couldn’t have done any of it had it not been for a vast network of people who handled logistics, mail, food, transportation, and even much-needed, if rarely appreciated, support and belief in their project. Tise introduces us to them all, and provides context for their place in Wilbur and Orville’s endeavor and lives.

He also shows us what Kitty Hawk looked like then, and how and why those things are important, what they tell us about the work—what they tell us about what has happened to the area in the intervening years—for creating an understanding in the families and geography that has shape it. It really makes something that has always felt like “long ago and far away” anything but.

Suddenly, the Wright brothers come to life in a way they never did before. I could recite the roster of their achievements (what kid who grew up in North Carolina can’t?) but they were just sort of cardboard cut-outs. Now, they are real people with friends—people who shared meals with and talked about life, struggles, heart break, hopes and probably most importantly … the weather! When looking at pictures of their tent, readers have to imagine the weather situation; it wasn’t just important to their experiments with flight, it was paramount in their daily thoughts.

Fans of aviation or North Carolina history will love the book. It is the answer to the impending gift-giving question as the holidays approach. Trust me, the photographs and the accompanying text are fascinating.

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