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  1. Book ImageGrand Ambition: A Novel

    Lisa Michaels

    "An absorbing, affecting and beautifully written novel."—New York Times Book Review


In November 1928, one year after Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, a pair of newlyweds set out to run the rapids of the Grand Canyon in a homemade boat. Swept up by America’s obsession with feats of daring, Glen and Bessie Hyde hoped to set a record—she would be the first woman to run that treacherous stretch of the Colorado River. A month later they vanished without a trace.

Based on the few known facts of Bessie and Glen Hyde’s story, Grand Ambition is an account of the young lovers’ journey, deftly braided with Glen’s father’s desperate efforts to find them. Written in lean and elegant prose, Grand Ambition is a tale of riveting suspense.

In her author’s statement, Lisa Michaels explains her interest in writing a novel based on the Hydes’ expedition: “I first read the story of Glen and Bessie Hyde in a history book. Their photograph, reproduced within the brief chapter, stopped me short: they were young and striking, wearing wool fedoras, bomber jackets with fur collars. The known facts of their story were scant and unsatisfying, but, from a writer’s perspective, this seemed like a blessing. William Styron once said that historical novelists do best with ‘thin rations.’ And so where history left off, I decided to begin.

“The story of the Hydes’ river journey seemed to give me the chance to examine both sides of an equation: the thrill of holding one’s life into the wind, and the torturous worry of those left at home. The push and pull between caution and risk, parents and children, is universal. But doing research for Grand Ambition, I also came to believe that the craving for adventure waxes in certain times. Reading newspapers from the 1920s, I was struck between the parallels between that era and the present: both boom times, with enormous fortunes being made on the stock market. Both times of relative peace. We all claim to want peace and prosperity. But there’s a kind of person who can’t stand this dulling of the fight or flight reflexes. And to keep these instincts sharp, they dream up feats of daring. In the 1920s we had Lindbergh flying solo across the Atlantic, and Trudy Ederle, an eighteen-year-old girl, swimming the English Channel. The newspapers of the Jazz Age were full of breathless accounts of this society woman’s ‘adventurous honeymoon’ barnstorming with her new husband, or that Arctic expedition. And today we have bungee jumping, ‘Survivor’, middle-aged accountants scaling peaks. It seems that when life is easy, people will make a hobby out of making it hard.

“Had Glen and Bessie Hyde been alive today, I imagine they might have tried to climb Mount Everest or race a hot-air balloon around the world. For myself, I have decided that I would rather read about adventure, or imagine it from the safety of a book-lined room.”

Discussion Questions

  1. Why were Glen and Bessie Hyde drawn to one another? Shortly after she met Glen, Bessie claimed “she could already see how it would be: she would live through his courage, just as he would live in her inventiveness, her emotion.” Did this turn out to be true? How important was the river journey to their marriage?
  2. What were Bessie’s reasons for going down the river? How did those reasons change as the trip wore on?
  3. Throughout Grand Ambition, the narrative of Glen and Bessie Hyde is interspersed with the first-person narrative of Reith Hyde. Reith’s observations on the young couple provide a different but comparably revealing perspective on their story. Bessie’s father is also an important character in the novel. How might he have told the story of Glen and Bessie’s adventures together?
  4. How does Grand Ambition fit into the American tradition of novels about the West? Lisa Michaels is one among many contemporary writers who have explored to the history of the West and its place in the American imagination through fictionalized accounts of its uncharted days. How does her vision compare with that of Wallace Stegner or Cormac McCarthy? What does it hold in common with earlier writers such as Willa Cather and Jack London?
  5. Bessie Hyde was undoubtedly an extraordinary woman. How does she stand out from the other female characters in the novel? How was she unusual among American women in the 1920s? In what ways was she more typical than her ambition suggests?
  6. What larger truths does Lisa Michaels’ novel illustrate about fame as a motivation? What relevance does the fate of Glen and Bessie Hyde have to the American imagination today? Is this a particularly American story?
  7. Is there any purpose to the kind of feats of daring that Glen and Bessie were attempting? Bessie hoped that “there was a girl out there, awake at her bedroom window, looking over a smug little town, who might take something from her story.” Is this her main motivation for making the trip?
  8. Why did Bessie think she had to do the things that frightened her?
  9. How do issues of class enter into Grand Ambition? Would Glen and Bessie Hyde have pursued their dream had they come from a different class background? What might they have done differently?
  10. Why did Lisa Michaels choose to alternate stories from the first-person perspective of Reith Hyde with the narrative of the young couple told in the third person?
  11. Do you think Glen and Bessie would have attempted this trip during World War I or the Great Depression? In what way was their adventure the product of the time in which they lived?
  12. Do you fault Reith Hyde for not trying to stop his son from attempting this trip? Did you identify more with Glen’s confidence or Reith’s caution?
  13. What role does visual and written testimony play in the story of Glen and Bessie Hyde?
  14. Superficially Bessie and Greta Grandstedt had little in common, yet Greta seems to be the only woman Bessie relates to in the novel. What did they see in one another?

About Lisa Michaels

Lisa Michaels is an award-winning poet and former editor at The Threepenny Review. She is the author of the novel Grand Ambition, a Los Angels Times Best Book of the Year and the memoir Split, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Michaels lives in Northern California.

Books by Lisa Michaels

  1. Book CoverGrand Ambition: A Novel

    "An absorbing, affecting and beautifully written novel."—New York Times Book ReviewMore