Reading Group Guide
Rich in both human interest and historical atmosphere, the story of Katharine Wright’s late-life marriage to Harry Haskell, and the tragic breach it caused with her brother Orville, is sure to stimulate a lively discussion at your book club. Here are a few questions to get you started:
1. Independent by nature and upbringing, Katharine prided herself on being unconventional in her relations with men. She supported woman suffrage, equal pay for equal work, and other aims of the women’s movement, even as she assumed the time-honored role of homemaker. In what ways did Katharine subscribe to traditional Victorian values and in what ways did she represent an emerging feminist sensibility? Would you describe her as a feminist?
2. When Harry unexpectedly declares his love, Katharine is forced to choose between following her heart and staying home to look after her beloved brother Orville. Think back over the difficult either-or decisions you’ve made in your own life. What insight do they give you into Katharine’s feelings and behavior? Does your experience make you more or less sympathetic with her predicament?
3. Katharine’s mother died when she was fifteen and she grew
up in an all-male household. Later she served with distinction as the lone
4. Katharine criticizes herself, and many of her fellow
women, for having no useful occupation. She gave up a career in teaching to
become Wilbur and Orville’s “social manager” in
5. The relationship between Katharine and Orville was so close that casual observers often mistook them for man and wife. Do you think Orville was justified in feeling betrayed when his sister left him to marry Harry? Would you feel differently if Katharine had been open with Orville about her wedding plans from the beginning? And do you believe that he would have taken a different view of the situation if she had given him more of a chance to “get used to the idea” before she married?
6. Throughout her adult life, Katharine went out of her way to refute news reports that she had provided either mathematical or financial assistance to her brothers in inventing the airplane. Wilbur and Orville scrupulously acknowledged the debts they owed to other aeronautical pioneers, but said little in public about Katharine’s unstinting practical and emotional support. Does our iconic image of the Wright brothers need to be adjusted to give greater prominence to the “Wright sister”?
7. Harry observes that both Orville’s scientific genius and his fundamental character were built on “resisting outside influences.” A contemporary historian whom Katharine quotes regarded Orville’s “immensity of perseverance” as the key to his success. What does Orville’s unrelenting opposition to Katharine’s marriage reveal about the strengths and weaknesses of his character, both as a human being and as a scientist?
8. A sense of family solidarity was instilled in the Wrights from childhood. This ethic encouraged Wilbur and Orville, who were generally progressive in their social philosophy, to take their sister’s self-sacrificing devotion for granted. In later life, Katharine came to resent that attitude, complaining that “the more you do for a family, the more they take as a matter of course.” How has the role of the family in American life changed over the past century? How did the Wrights’ clannishness affect their ability to deal with the outside world?
9. What do you think about the distinction Katharine draws between “passionate love” and “gentle love” or “motherly love”? Is the latter inherently longer-lasting and more trustworthy, as she suggests? What does she mean when she refers to Orville as “more like a lover than a brother”? And which of the two kinds of love predominates in her relationship with Harry?
10. Katharine and Harry both rebelled against their strict religious upbringings and the fundamentalism of their parents. Yet religious values continued to shape their attitudes and actions. When Stef, the dashing Arctic explorer, betrays Katharine and Orville’s confidence, she observes that he would be “an entirely different kind of person if he had grown up in the wholesome surroundings Harry had as a young man.” What is the foundation of Katharine’s moral code, and how does it manifest itself in her relationships with Orville, Harry, and Stef?
For those seeking a straightforward historical account of
the events chronicled in Maiden Flight,
I highly recommend the late Ian Mackersey’s The
Wright Brothers: The Remarkable Story of the Aviation Pioneers Who Changed the
World (London: Little Brown, 2003). Mackersey devotes two full chapters to
Katharine’s love affair with Harry, her subsequent estrangement from Orville,
and the sad coda to his illustrious career. Richard Maurer covers the ground
more concisely in a meticulously researched biography for younger readers, The Wright Sister: Katharine Wright and Her
Famous Brothers (2003; rpt.