Tara Staley’s 2013 novel Conditions Are Favorable brings romance to the windswept sand bar of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, positing an emotional relationship between Orville Wright and Madeleine Tate at the start of the twentieth century. Tate is a local woman dreaming of something better than rural poverty and hard work. She seems to find that “better” in the prank-loving, hard-working younger Wright sibling, who with his middle-class manners and fine clothing seems like someone from another world. But there are complications afoot for both Madeleine and Orville that will keep their relationship on the ground – even as they both learn to soar. Readers will find a story of personal triumph here, even if they won’t find a romantic happy ending.
I wasn’t disposed to like this book. I’ve read my share of historical romance novels and enjoyed many of them, but something made me uneasy about the idea of using a real historical figure as a subject of a romance. This is particularly true for Orville Wright, whose life was dotted by difficulties – the death of his mother Susan in 1889, his difficult relationship with his father Milton, Wilbur’s early death in 1912, and a long, pain-wracked isolation before his own death in 1947. It’s no wonder that in 1930, Eric Stephens wrote in the New Yorker that:
With all that in mind, it seemed somehow indecent to speculate on Orville’s romantic proclivities.
As it turned out, I was judging Staley too harshly. Though the romance between Orville and Madeleine is real (at least as much as their respective characters allow — there is physical passion here but the love-making is in the nineteenth-century rather than twentieth-century sense), it functions as a device for exploring Staley’s theory that the Wright Brothers (especially Orville) were on the autism spectrum — and that Orville in particular may have had Asperger’s Syndrome. In Staley’s words: “I’ll never forget that moment, when I slapped a hand to my face and blurted the Great Epiphany: ‘The Wright brothers were on the spectrum. For crying out loud!’”
Orville’s devotion to aviation is what keeps his relationship with Madeliene from thriving — but she speculates that there’s more to it than that. Near the end of the book, with the relationship falling apart and the Wright brothers about to fly, we get this scene from Madeleine’s perspective: “I yell. I want answers. I shout obscenities. I don’t understand — how I fell for a gentle-man who is that way. And he wants to stay that way. I don’t know what to call that way — shyness? Science-man disease? Coldness? Mechanical?”
Staley is of course writing fiction, but she makes her case to the reader grounded in what evidence is allowed by the genre. Every chapter begins with a short anecdote about the Wrights or about Asperger’s Syndrome; for example, Chapter 24 opens with a quote from John Elder Robinson’s Look Me In the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s: “Many people with Asperger’s have an affinity for machines. Sometimes I think I can relate better to a good machine than any kind of person.” The opening of Chapter 29 is a snippet from an oral history interview with the brothers’ grandniece Marianne Miller Hudec:: “There was a time in the 1930’s when Leon Bollee’s wife announced she was coming to town. Madame Bollee was by then a widow. Uncle Orv was probably right to suspect she was interested in romance. He was beside himself. He didn’t know what he was going to do with her. This . . . really has to do with Uncle Orv’s inability to manage his life. He just couldn’t tell her no. He just couldn’t do it!”
I’ve written elsewhere that while I’m sympathetic to efforts to uncover a hidden disabled past, I’m skeptical of retrospective diagnoses of things like autism. Not being medically trained myself, I defer to the judgment of psychiatrists like Darold Treffert, who in 2013 noted that, “It is difficult enough to make accurate diagnoses of autism or Asperger’s disorder in real life, with face-to-face interviews and comprehensive testing, let alone trying to apply post-mortem diagnoses, sight unseen. Retrospective medical diagnoses are always problematical and suspect.” Staley makes a convincing case that the Wrights were indeed eccentric, but the medicalization of eccentricity is one of the great challenges of writing about human behavior these days. Those unlike the social norm are not necessarily neurodivergent — they may simply be unlike the social norm. Historical records do indeed suggest that Orville was odd (as was Wilbur), but Staley lacks the evidence to make more specific diagnoses.
A retrospective diagnosis of Asperger’s in particular may raise concerns with readers given the recently uncovered evidence tying Hans Asperger to the Nazi Party. Lacking the expertise to comment incisively on that subject, the most I can say here is that Staley identified as the mother of a young boy with Asperger’s at the time of the book’s publication, and has not (as far as I could determine) chosen to abandon that language since. The diagnosis is kept to the author’s notes and supplemental material – at no point does anyone in the text of the novel identify Orville as having Asperger’s. (No surprise, as that would have been wildly anachronistic for a book set at the beginning of the 20th century.)
So if I’m not convinced by Staley’s diagnosis, how do I feel about the book she’s written? I do like the novel’s narrative very much. With a shelf full of books about the Wright Brothers (my planned book on the Wrights and religion has taken a back burner to my forthcoming Edgar Cayce biography, but it’s still cooking), I don’t think I’ve ever felt so transported back to the place and time of turn-of-the-century Kitty Hawk – a barrier island then so remote that on their Dayton-Kitty Hawk trips, the brothers had to take the train to Norfolk, Virginia, then find a commercial ship traveling through the Outer Banks that could bring them to their destination. Madeleine and her friends and family are appealing and interesting characters, and the rough-hewn character of life in the Outer Banks has never been quite so readily apparent. I like the way Staley shifts from perspective to perspective throughout the book. While this is Madeleine’s story, we hear from other people too. As somebody who comes primarily at the Wrights and their world through the lens of religion, I’d have liked to see a little more about the many Baptist revival meetings that the Wrights remembered in the general area – but that would not have fit the kind of story she was telling.
I like a reminder that women existed in the story of the Wrights. Too often the Wrights are remembered as a duo and not part of a larger society that included both men and women. Orville’s careful efforts to shape the identity of the Wrights after his brother’s death means we often lose track of their humanity – and quite deliberately so. Staley quotes from the only Wright biography actually authorized by Orville: “Since boyhood the brothers had been partners in a relationship more binding than most marriages.” It’s nice to see a reminder that these were human beings, not simply grade-school paper cutouts.
The romance on the page is affecting. Staley has an autistic son (her inspiration for her diagnosis of the Wrights and for writing the book) and the reader can feel her affection for Orville and understanding of his condition radiating from the page. Her Orville does feel quite a bit like the Orville of history — a genial man keen on practical jokes with his close friends, albeit with some difficulty expressing stronger emotions. A reader hoping for a passionate kindling of romance on the dry sparks of Kitty Hawk’s sand dunes may be disappointed — but a realistic reader is unlikely to be searching for entertainment in the pages of a fictionalized account of the life of Orville Wright.
The reader hopes that history’s verdict will be overturned and that Orville and Madeleine will be able to make it work — and regrets when they can’t. (I’m personally a soft touch, or perhaps I just have a very old-fashioned idea of romance. I like it when the heroine and the hero settle down together at the end of the book. But perhaps that would have been a bridge too far for Staley.)
Failed romance or not, the book ends on a triumphant note for both of them. Madeleine has escaped the boundaries of Kitty Hawk just as much as Orville has escaped the bonds of gravity in his Flyer — they just won’t be flying anywhere together.