While the story of the 1932 kidnapping of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s 20-month-old son Charlie is a well-known one, Mariah Fredericks’ retelling of it from the perspective of the couple’s nanny, Betty Gow, makes for a thoroughly compelling and fresh read. Told in the first person, Fredericks’ reimagines the “crime of the century” as a crime novel with vivid immediacy.
Betty is with baby Charlie for much of his life (and much of the book), as his world famous aviator parents are often off traveling for long periods of time. Fredericks paints the relationship of nanny and baby as an extremely loving one, while Charles is portrayed—with accuracy, I believe—as exacting, even with his small children. Anne is the softer, more gentle parent.
My grandmother, who was a contemporary of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, always admired her and formed me into a fellow fan of her lovely diaries. Fredericks’ writing in this novel is as beautiful and evocative as Lindbergh’s. By and large her writing is restrained, so when she does include some poetic language in her writing, it makes it even more memorable.
The author also has a way with character that is hard to match. She brings Betty Gow to life as a young Scottish immigrant trying to get by in a new country and finding herself employed by the most famous family in the world. When asked about her employers, Betty keeps her lips pretty zipped— but it emphasizes Fredericks’ point: The kidnapper needed to have some inside knowledge of the household schedule to take a sleeping baby from his crib at 10 o’clock at night without anyone in the household hearing a thing. It also makes some points about fame and notoriety and how unpleasant a prison it can be.
The reader is with Betty as she experiences the kidnapping and the following questioning by the police. The Lindbergh household and the Morrow household (Anne’s parents) employed almost 30 servants apiece, so the understructure of their lives was a vast one. The brutal police examination of the household staff, including Betty herself, is thorough and at times ridiculous as they search for any kind of clue in the backstories of the staff. Fredericks uses actual letters and courtroom testimony as well.
In the end I was convinced by the author’s theory, just as I was convinced that Betty herself had nothing to do with the crime. And what, in the end, is the point of recreating a well-known crime like the Lindbergh kidnapping? To me, it brought more illumination to the story, highlighting the emotional and personal cost to the people around the Lindberghs as well, of course, to the Lindberghs themselves. It made me feel and think about this story in a new way, and when the book covers were finally closed, it was almost jarring to find myself back in the present. This is a quality only the very best books possess, in my opinion. The Lindbergh Nanny is certainly one of the reads of the year.