by CONNIE DAUGHERTY
River of January by Gail Chumbley; 2014
Mont “Chum” Chumbley is a pilot. He’s a natural, and he lives to fly. Helen Thompson is a dancer. She’s a natural, and she lives to dance. They come from different worlds and have nothing in common. Yet they are very much alike and destined to be together.
In her 2014 award-winning biography, River of January, Gail Chumbley follows the lives of her husband’s parents from 1927 through 1936. Using their letters, shared stories, and interviews, along with her own storytelling skills, Chumbly has created an informative and entertaining book that reads more like a novel than a biography. It details the struggles of not only the individual characters, but of the world through the Great Depression and events leading to WWII.
River of January includes historical details of the entertainment business from the decline of vaudeville to the emergence of talkies (motion pictures with sound). As well, the book reveals how developments in aviation also moved quickly in the 1930s. Chumbly adeptly follows those drastic historical changes.
Having both come from humble beginnings, Helena and Chum each choose career paths eventually lead them to their first meeting.
At 18, Chum joins the Navy with the hopes of becoming a pilot. He works his way through the military bureaucracy, getting assignments everywhere, it seems, other than at flight school. His lack of education holds him back, but he’s determined to fly.
He has something to prove to his family, to himself. So, when an opportunity presents itself Chum accepts it.
“A nervous and sleep-deprived Mont Chumbley reported for flight elimination exercises.” Everyone expects him to wash out; after all, he has failed the entrance exams more than once. But Chum knows all he needs is a chance to prove himself.
Meanwhile, Helen has her own struggles. While confident and self-assured on stage, off stage she is a pawn of her controlling mother’s insecurities and personal dreams. The only way Helen seems able to escape—while keeping her mother at least somewhat satisfied—is to accept jobs that take her away from her New York home. She finds herself traveling with dance troops throughout Europe.
This need to escape home and family in order to discover and develop their true potential is one thing Helen and Chum have in common, though the way they deal with it is very different.
Eventually, the stock market crash throws the whole world into economic turmoil, which leads to political turmoil, and Helen and Chum are caught up in it all as the entertainment business and the technology of aviation transform.
Chum finds himself, restless and bored, with a job in West Palm Beach, Fla. He jumps at an opportunity to demonstrate Waco Aircraft Company’s new fighter plane for the Brazilian government down in Brazil.
Meanwhile, Helen is back in New York as 1934 slides into 1935, working in a three–person act under her mother’s watchful and domineering presence. Helen, too, is getting restless and ready for change. “She also knew her time had come to move on from their partnership. She hoped her mother would see it the same way.”
Helen flees New York on a ship to Brazil and lands a gig dancing in a club regularly frequented by Americans. “Three young men seated near the dance floor caught her eye, clearly American by their dress and relaxed posture.” One of those young men is Chum, and he catches her attention immediately.
“This new girl, this sparking, compelling blonde on the stage, radiated a magnetism that surprised him.” In a moment, as their eyes meet, the pilot and the dancer connect. And although they try to be together as much as possible, they each have careers and obligations that take them in different directions.
Eventually, Chum proposes, and Helen accepts. They plan to live in Rio de Janerio, but it isn’t that simple.
Between Helen’s mother, who disapproves of their union, and the war, the young couple’s letter transcripts reveal their struggle against seemingly unmovable objects to continue their love and establish a life together.
In 2016, Chumbley published River of January: Figure Eight, picking up where the award-winning River of January dramatically left off. In the sequel, she tells the story of their continued courtship, marriage, and struggle to keep their love intact, despite the challenges of WWII and the unrelenting interference of Helen’s mother. It is the realism of the story—the struggles and successes, the bad times and the good, as well as the author’s narrative—that keeps readers enthralled and turning pages. These two books are more than a family biography. In telling the story of these two intriguing and imperfect people, Chumbley has captured and preserved the history of an era.
Chumbley is a retired history teacher. In 2005, she received the Outstanding Teacher of American History from National Daughters of the American Revolution in Washington DC. A native of the Pacific Northwest, the author was born and raised in Spokane, Wash., and earned a history degree from Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash. Chumbley and her husband currently live near Boise, Idaho. She received the 2016 Idaho Author’s Award for Memoirs and Biography for River of January.