Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Night Flight: Amelia Earhart Crosses the Atlantic

By Robert Burleigh
Paintings by Wendell Minor
$16.99, ages 4-8, 40 pages

If words could fly, these would.

In this poetic account of aviatrix Amelia Earhart's solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean, readers feel like they're taking off with her, and imagine what she must have seen and felt.

Burleigh's words thrill with their immediacy and momentum, while Minor's paintings envelop readers in the vastness and mercurial nature of the sky.

From the moment Earhart's single-engine Vega rolls down the dirt runway in Newfoundland en route to France, readers find themselves surrendering to whatever will happen.

It is May 1932. Earhart "pushes her last doubts into a secret place deep inside her," and readers too take in a deep breath and feel the plane's wheels go faster and faster. Her courage will now be their own.

Once the Vega is aloft, solitude embraces readers; "the plane swoops like a swallow" over tundra and ascends higher into the waning light of late day, rising upward until they can no longer hear the surf.

"Amelia Earhart lives for this moment: / to follow the wide horizon that never ends!" Burleigh writes -- and we imagine we live for it too.

At first the mood of the flight is one of bliss. The night is calm and the Vega soars eastward into "wisps of shimmering clouds" and expanses of glistening stars.

Earhart feels at ease and indulges in reflection about "first-time things"; among them, standing before whirling propellers as a young girl: "The props send puffs of soft snow into her delighted eyes."

Her mind soars with all that's she's looked down upon and her conviction "to try to do things as men have tried."  There is an expectation that the trip will remain smooth and sure.

"But she is wrong," Burleigh writes, his words hauntingly unequivocal in the last line on the page, as the ocean grows choppy and lives up to his description as "dark and seething."

Midnight arrives abruptly with a flash of lightning, its tendrils reaching down before her path.

"Fists of rain pummel the cockpit windshield," stirring Earhart from a half-dream; is it thunder or her heart pounding?

The Vega is obscured by darkness as "the friendly night becomes a graph of fear: a jagged line between where-I-am and not-quite-sure."

Earhart is now flying blind, her altimeter "swirls wildy;" unable to tell her how high she is -- she decides to turn the Vega upward and get above the storm.

But in her haste, has she gone too far? Ice now encrusts her wings.  "The plane reels…/ Suddenly it spins, dipping and dizzying," and readers feel their eyes dashing across one verse to the next.

With no time to waste, she draws off everything she's learned and sends the plane nose-diving. She hopes it will allow her to accelerate enough to gain back control, though it is a gamble -- she has no idea how close she is to the water.

"…She bursts throughout the lowest clouds. / There it is, rushing toward her. Near. Nearer." The plane plummets 3,000 feet.

"The Atlantic stares up with its huge uncaring eye. / Breakers rise like teeth from its angry mouth."

And with everything Earhart has, she pulls back the plane and with just 10 feet to spare, levels it out above "the ocean tomb."

Readers let out their breath, realizing they've held it, and yet the dangers are not over.

It is 3 a.m.  Earhart's knuckles are white, a flame trails out of a cracked exhaust pipe. It is the "hour of clammy gray. / Hour of maybe -- and maybe not." The hour of alone.

Earhart breaths in sniffing salts and counts out loud to force herself to stay awake and to focus her mind. Her hands grip the wheel, and she "finds a middle between over and under. / Plunges once more into the the thickness -- and plows ahead."

By 6 a.m., the morning light begins to melt the dark, too slowly for a plane with so little time to spare. Earhart's face is "clenched like a stone mask" and "her stomach churns from the smell of leaking gas."

She no longer thinks of getting to France, but only to find a smooth stretch of land to safely land.

Earhart steers the Vega down through a bank of clouds. She sees coastline, follows a line of train tracks across the Irish countryside, then "lands with a jolt"  onto the first flat expanse she sees, a farmer's pasture.

As the Vega rumbles to a stop, "Amelia Earhart leans back in the cockpit. / There is an unbelievable stillness inside her."  She's gone 2,026 miles --  for readers that is just 40 pages, yet they share her exhaustion and relief, the "great peace" the now wells inside of her.

They feel themselves stepping out of Earhart's story and may even feel their legs wobble, for the story is both intense and exhilarating. It carries readers into the experience, and as if in a half-dream, makes them feel as if they sat where she sat, endured the same terror and made it out just in time.

Coming five years after Charles Lindbergh's Lucky Lindy flight, Earhart's dangerous flight was the first time a woman piloted a plane solo across the Atlantic. Five years later, she would set off on her final, fateful flight around the world with navigator Fred Noonan.

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