Thursday, March 17, 2011

Amelia Lost

The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart 
By Candace Fleming
$18.99, ages 8-12, 128 pages.

Award-winning Fleming strips away the mystique surrounding legendary aviatrix Amelia Earhart to show a woman as fallible as any other -- yet driven to conquer the air like no woman before her.

"All I wished to do in the world was to be a vagabond in the air," Earhart once said, and though Earhart met criticism in her later career for profiting from aviation, it was this guiding dream that's defined Earhart at least until her death.

When Earhart's plane vanished in 1937, her husband, late publisher George Putnam, worried that her disappearance would overshadow her legacy, and for some perhaps it has, yet Fleming doesn't dwell on Earhart's disappearance but lets it fade in and out of chapters about her life.

Fleming (The Great and Only Barnum) makes sure we see Earhart for what she was, a typical woman in many ways, but uniquely driven. As biographer Mary S. Lovell described Earhart, she was "an ordinary girl growing into an extraordinary woman who dared to attempt seemingly unattainable goals in a man's world."

We meet a woman who was at times impulsive and headstrong, who with Putnam could work the media and profited greatly from her record-setting feats, yet who had unstoppable courage and enthusiasm, and who not only earnestly believed a woman could do everything a man could do, but wanted other women to believe that to.

Two years before her fateful flight around the world, Purdue University hired Earhart to inspire female students to take up careers in male-dominated fields, and while teaching there, Earhart became so enthusiastic about her mission that she asked to live in the women's dorms and would talk late into the night with female students.

She told the young women to "look beyond the comfort and security of marriage and instead 'dare to live,'" Fleming wrote, and counseled them to study whatever they wanted to. "Don't let the world push you around," one student recalled her saying.

What makes this biography stand out is Fleming's diligence in sorting fact from myth, her clarity about what Earhart stood for, and the clever way she sets up the book: she immerses readers in a chronology of Earhart's life, while haunting us with the mystery of her disappearance.

Fleming begins the book with the crew of a coast guard cutter waiting and listening for word from Earhart that she's nearing Howland Island, a narrow spit of coral sand where Earhart's plane was supposed to touch down on May 21, 1937, but as we know, never did.

The book then shifts to her happy early childhood when anything seemed possible, briefly jumps back into the tense hours after she'd lost radio contact, then catches up to where her life let off, this time a darker time of her childhood, when her father drank heavily and lost his job, and her parents separated.

Each time Fleming concludes a part of Earhart's life, she cuts in, much like breaking news, with the latest rumors or accounts of Earhart's disappearance, giving readers the feeling that a real-life tragedy is unfolding, and imparting some of the anxiety and strain that rescue workers and the public felt.

Juxtaposing her life's history with those tense hours, days then weeks, not only puts readers in the moment, but makes them feel more connected to the aviatrix and invested in what's going on. It also keeps them grounded on the woman, more than the legend. She's not just famous, she's someone they know.

Readers learn that Earhart was scrappy from the start. 

As a child, she was bewildered by rules of female conduct and dared her friends to do everything boys did; she thought children's books were tired tales of good children overcoming bad, and devoured thrillers and romances, though wondered "why the girls in the books were not allowed to have the exciting adventures that boys did."

She spent part of the year with her grandmother, and craved adventure, often taking her friends on imaginative journeys to deepest Africa or darkest Asia in an old abandoned carriage. She was also the only girl she knew who dared go belly down on a sled, much to the chagrin of proper girls.

Later in college preparatory school she "flung herself into everything," and once she felt the itch to fly, while volunteering as a nurse's aide, nothing else could compare. Dreams of going to medical school petered out, other jobs came and went, but flying was unshakable. The more people said women shouldn't be allowed to fly, the more she wanted to do it.

Earhart's zest for life and her unstoppable determination opened doors, though it also exposed her to risks that some say she wasn't always prepared for.

Earhart flew headlong into things without knowing all that she needed to know, as early as her first flight lessons -- and this perhaps may have ultimately cost her her life. Her first teacher worried about her "in-flight daydreaming" and before her fateful voyage, Earhart failed to take the time to learn how to operate her airplane radio.

We also learn that she and Putnam greatly profited from record-setting flights and both were criticized for creating a "Flying Laboratory" at Purdue. The purpose, they said, was to develop important data for the aviation industry, but critics saw it more as a way to pay for the twin-engine Electra she took on that fateful voyage.

In addition, Fleming points out, the two worked at creating an image of her that wasn't altogether true -- even her famous tousled hair was an illusion (she curled it in private but led everyone to believe it was naturally that way), but the goal wasn't as impure as some critics suggested.

Though "Earhart (along with her husband, George Putnam) took an active role in mythologizing her own life," Fleming writes in the introduction, they were convinced they had to build her up or her flying opportunities would fade away.

In the end, it was the dignity and fearlessness she showed while going after her dream, not the fame of records or the money she earned from lectures and books, that defined her.

Upon meeting Earhart in 1932, at the start of a friendship that lasted until the aviatrix's death, Eleanor Roosevelt said of her: "I hope to know Miss Earhart more and more but I never hope to admire her more than I do now.

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