"Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace."
-- Amelia Earhart
A fairy tale for the modern era...
A beautiful heroine grows up in poverty and tends the wounded during the Great War, but her passion is flying. She becomes the first woman to cross the sea in an airplane -- first as a passenger, then as a pilot. Soon she becomes the first person, male or female, to fly from the mainland to a distant tropical island. Her glorious ambition is to fly around the world. But on the cusp of her greatest triumph, one long flight away from familiar shores, she and her plane disappear without a trace.
She passes from fame into legend.
During her lifetime, Amelia Earhart accomplished great things as a nurse, social worker, political activist, pilot, writer and public speaker. But her disappearance overwhelmed the celebrity she gained for her hard work and her courage. As hundreds of girls followed her into the cockpits of planes, hundreds of pilots traced her path over the Pacific, looking for evidence of her fate. More than 50 years later, despite the research and testimony of numerous experts, we still have no conclusive evidence about what happened to Amelia.
No wonder so many writers continue to speculate on the events of her life and the mystery of its end. In 1997, two books by first-time novelists -- Jane Mendelsohn's I Was Amelia Earhart and Alison Anderson's Hidden Latitudes -- became the latest to project scenarios about her destiny. These books share common elements from the historical record and from popular speculation, but it's their thematic and emotional parallels that really make one stop and think about the meaning of Amelia Earhart's life, what she has come to symbolize for women in particular, and what we might wish not only for her but for the generations she has inspired.
Here's what we know for sure. On July 2, 1937, Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan were on course for Howland Island in the South Pacific. Earhart had taken off with enough fuel for at least 20 hours of flying, but she had been ill with dysentery and her instruments had been acting up. There is evidence that she and Noonan might not have been getting along; Earhart had ignored his directions and flown the wrong way over Africa, and Noonan had reportedly been drinking. The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca awaited them at Howland Island, but Earhart's communications were erratic and not on the expected frequencies. Within hours after losing radio contact, the Itasca crew concluded that her plane must have gone down in the ocean. The U.S. government authorized a massive search, but no trace of the aircraft was found.
As for Earhart and Noonan, they were reportedly seen all over the world -- as refugees on a tropical island, as corpses executed by the Japanese Navy, as American suburbanites hiding from publicity. Obviously they couldn't have been in all those places, but since their bodies were never discovered, a case could be made for any possibility. In 1943, after the U.S. went to war, Rosalind Russell starred in a film called Flight For Freedom, the story of a fictional aviator very like Earhart. The character was in love with her navigator and crashed her plane into the Pacific to cover up her secret mission to spy on the Japanese. This film fueled rumors that Earhart, too, had been on a spy mission, that perhaps she had been captured by the enemy, or perhaps she and Noonan fell in love and ran off together.
It's hard to say whether many writers were influenced by Flight For Freedom (unavailable on video and not often rerun on television), or if novelists and biographers individually found themselves drawn to the idea of the heroine lost on a romantic adventure. The Amelia-and-Fred love story has made it into dozens of biographical adaptations of Earhart's life, despite a total lack of historical evidence of an affair -- on the contrary, Earhart's husband G.P. Putnam pressured her to take Noonan on the flight, and Noonan was a newlywed at the time. Many Earhart life stories also depict suggestions from her friend Eleanor Roosevelt or from Eleanor's husband Franklin that Earhart keep her eyes open for Japanese military activity, though it's unclear how much of a threat the U.S. Navy considered the Japanese to be in the late 1930s.
Still, these two Hollywood-concocted myths have become prominent aspects of Earhart's popular legend. The biographical TV-movie Amelia Earhart: The Final Flight accurately portrays certain elements often glossed over by biographers, such as Amelia's first, failed attempt to fly around the world, and her complicated relationship with her husband and publisher Putnam. But Diane Keaton's Amelia also receives murmured warnings about the Japanese, and spends her last moments hand-in-hand with Rutger Hauer's adoring Fred. The Hollywood myths have even found their way into an episode of Star Trek Voyager, which promotes the unlikely hypothesis that Earhart and Noonan were kidnapped by aliens. When the Voyager crew discovers the missing aviators on a planet halfway across the galaxy, Amelia makes standard references to the Japanese threat and Fred confesses his love for her.
So it's not surprising that recent speculative fiction wrestles with these popular beliefs, which hold considerable popular appeal and influence our understanding of the meaning of Earhart's life story. Jane Mendelsohn's best-selling I Was Amelia Earhart finds our heroine marooned on a desert island with Fred, eating coconuts and sleeping in a hammock. She recounts her detachment from her famous image before her last flight, and describes how she has come alive to the sensuality of life beyond civilization. Amelia was a writer, and Mendelsohn emphasizes her poetic view of sights seen only from the air. "We became voyeurs of the intimate relationship between wind and sand," she writes. "I dreamed of nothing but porcelain clouds cascading in slow-motion waterfalls against a backdrop of robin's-egg blue."
In her childhood, Amelia explains, she always wanted to be a heroine. Yet she compromised her ability to live free by marrying Putnam and allowing herself to be talked into commercial endeavors that meant nothing to her. She felt straight-jacketed by her fame, stuck within Putnam's scripts for her appearances; as she admits, "Noonan once said any fool could have seen I was risking my life but not living it." But when she and her navigator couldn't locate the miniscule Pacific island where they meant to refuel, they went careening off the map.
Cut off from every other person in the world -- including Fred, who begins to act as if he's gone mad -- Amelia relives her life in memory, now colored by the intensity of feeling she experiences in the island paradise-prison. Inevitably, she and Fred fall in love and realize that they could never have shared before what they can give to each other in this uncharted territory. Their intimacy becomes everything; they no longer perceive any difference between being captured and being rescued, so they are terrified by the probability of being discovered by the Japanese. It's not clear in the end whether they are on the island, in heaven, or within Earhart's mind during the last moments before a fatal crash, but it hardly matters. All that matters is the state of love in which she finds herself.
An intensely lyrical, passionate novel with phrases of such breathtaking beauty that they bring to mind the soaring feeling of flight, I Was Amelia Earhart is at once optimistic and tragic. The story serves as a testament to the power of the mind to transcend suffering, horror, perhaps even death, though this may only be possible for someone with Earhart's keen insight and calm detachment from the life she has lost. At the same time, the book implies that one may need to put an ocean between oneself and the rest of the world for such epiphanies, which means that all of Earhart's accomplishments during her life mean nothing...not even to her. Mendelsohn's version of Amelia's final voyage is intensely personal, powerfully spiritual, and dependent on the intimate revelations of romantic love.
Hidden Latitudes has a similar dreamlike quality, for author Alison Anderson writes in a style like Mendelsohn's that switches between first-person and omniscient narration. In the beginning, a nameless speaker dreams of being lost in her Electra, unable to land. Then we come aground with her as she witnesses a couple taking refuge in the lagoon of the island where she has been stranded for forty-two years. The narrator has been alone for most of this time, though she once had her navigator Fred with her, and on very rare occasions has been visited by a Japanese officer and a native islander.
The drifting couple, Robin and Lucy, are attempting to sail around the world, but errors both mechanical and human threaten the quest and their lives, just as they did for Amelia and Fred. The ex-aviator sneaks aboard their sailboat, studies Robin and Lucy's books and belongings, and contemplates what it would mean to return to that world now that she has lost all connection to humanity. She watches the pair try to fix their marriage, which is in worse shape than their boat. They argue, make love and struggle to survive as she and Fred did so many years before. Which is lonelier, she wonders -- remaining isolated with one's memories, or living solitary and trapped in relationships with people who doesn't really share themselves? Is it better to be a vital aspect of an isolated atoll or an isolated aspect of a thriving society?
As she watches the intruders, this unnamed Amelia recalls falling in love with Fred in her blue lagoon, after months of attempted propriety that left them both lonely and depressed. She loved without restraint and even conceived a child with him, though the baby was born prematurely and did not survive. Neither did Fred, who left her alone and desolate. For years she has lit signal fires when she could see ships nearby, desperate for any contact with humanity, but once the damaged sailboat arrives, she wonders whether the world from which it came could ever be her home. Robin and Lucy's self-absorption prevent them from following up on the clues that they are not alone on the island, leaving Amelia in control of her own destiny. "Do you believe that we are our true selves here, or back there?" Fred once asked her. She realizes that back in the world of newspapers and radio, she would be a curiosity, far away from her happiest memories, her true self.
While Fred lay dying, Amelia tried to make a deal with God, to trade the life of their unborn child for that of her lover. Now Lucy realizes that she has become pregnant while on the island and tries to make a deal as well -- that if God will allow her and Robin to survive, she will joyfully bear and raise their child. As with I Was Amelia Earhart, the theme of Hidden Latitudes seems oddly reactionary, obsessed with love and babies instead of the accomplishments and breakthroughs that previously defined both Amelia and Lucy. It suggests that exploration, adventure and discovery are fleeting pleasures, but love endures. Again, the isolated Earhart has become an initiate into a primal way of life. Her spiritual life is rich, but the price for experiencing paradise is the pain of knowing what it means to lose it.
In Still Missing: Amelia Earhart and the Search for Modern Feminism, Susan Ware demonstrates that in the 1930s, Earhart personified the women's movement. She was an independent individualist who campaigned for women's rights to venture away from traditionally feminine pursuits. Skilled at using the media to promote her messages, she opened new horizons for women -- not only in the air where she participated in women's derbies and competed against men to be the first to accomplish various feats, but in the commercial realm as well.
In Earhart's own words, "Women must try to do things as men have tried...when they fail their failure must be but a challenge to others." Last Flight, a book comprised of personal dispatches from her final journey, emphasizes this need for women to spread their wings; as she travels, Earhart makes clear her disdain for cultures that attempt to restrict women's social and sexual status by limiting them to the domestic sphere. Her clear, evocative prose suggests not the lyrical poet of contemporary novels but a keen observer of the world around her.
Earhart's relationship with her husband was by all accounts (including her own) a business partnership as well as a private bond, for he managed her business and her appearances. Several biographies cite a letter that Earhart gave Putnam before their wedding in which she stated that she did not intend for their vows to serve as a medieval promise of fidelity; Susan Butler's biography East to the Dawn speculates that she had an affair with aviation official Eugene Vidal. It's not clear whether Noonan was Earhart's first choice for a navigator or someone she was pressured by Putnam to take on for expediency's sake, and even less clear whether she liked him, given her intolerance of men with drinking problems after a childhood devastated by her father's alcoholism. She and Noonan could have gone down screaming epithets and pointing fingers at each other, rather than reveling in erotic tension or dawning love as so many fictional accounts and not a few biographies suggest.
How curious that so many reimaginings of the legend of Amelia Earhart postulate a secret mission and a grand passion that transcend her documented accomplishments. Is the fairy tale not complete without epic risk and romance? Earhart was pragmatic and ambitious, proud of her status as a role model and determined to prove the value of independence and adventuring for women. If she had a deeply romantic or spiritual side, she seems to have kept it anchored to her practical goals. Why, then, in these retellings of her story, does the desire for emotional and spiritual fulfillment overwhelm the longing for fame, fortune and accomplishment?
Earhart believed that the journey mattered more than the destination. But there's no denying the magnitude of her loss, not only to her intimates and other flyers but to a generation of women she might have inspired by her life rather than her disappearance. Mendelsohn's and Anderson's stories don't bring Amelia back in triumph, but they do keep her alive, and a rich emotional life on a desert island with Fred offers a happier ending than rotting at the bottom of the Pacific with her greatest effort unfulfilled. The myths of Earhart say as much about the hopes and expectations of her admirers as they do about the aviator.
These flights take us someplace very different from Earhart's intended final destination, which undoubtedly would have included a parade and a press conference, followed perhaps by retirement and speeches at increasingly smaller events as public interest in her celebrity waned. Instead she inhabits the realm of dreams, where one fairy tale follows another and the risks are all worthwhile.
Here is the site for the Earhart Estate and another about Earhart myths.
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