When I was growing up my schoolroom classes would routinely learn about the great unsolved mysteries of the world. How they made Stonehenge. What really happened to the people of Roanoke? And why did Amelia Earhart disappear? Various biographies made of the woman for kids sort of allude to this question early in the book, forget about it during the middle section, then do a quickie wrap-up of it at the end. Basically, they take one of the most interesting mysteries in history and render it a dull dishwater gray. As such, an Amelia Earhart biography would not normally interest me. That is, before author Candace Fleming got her paws on the material. Fleming’s no fool. She knows that if you have a mystery then there is probably a pretty exciting story to tie onto it. Continuity has its charms, but why not chuck the standard bio format if you can get away with it? As such, we get Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart. Alternating between the “life” part and the “disappearance” part, kids get sucked into the nail-biting near misses of Amelia’s rescuers between biographical sections where you come to care about the woman herself. And, of course, it’s researched to the hilt. Nice, that.
When some of us think of the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, we think of that eerie moment when she was there one moment and gone the next. In truth, it wasn’t like that. In fact, it was a lot more interesting. In alternating chapters author Candace Fleming jumps back and forth between Amelia’s biographical details and the many people who heard Amelia’s cries for rescue (in vain). There was the fifteen-year-old in Florida who heard “This is Amelia Earhart” issuing from her radio. The sixteen-year-old boy in Wyoming who heard it too. There was the housewife in Texas trying to find an overseas radio program. All these near calls are contrasted with Fleming’s many little-known Earhart facts. Amelia never really flew her “first flight”. She was given identical poses to Charles Lindberg in her publicity shots due to her likeness to the fellow pilot. Her father encouraged her, but also near ruined his family with his alcoholism. And maybe most significant of all, Amelia blew off her instruction in learning how to operate her radio . . . a choice that undoubtedly led to her death. With a director’s grace, Fleming draws the two storylines together in the end, leaving us with little doubt as to Ms. Earhart’s eventual fate. A Bibliography and Source Notes appear at the end.
I like research. I like knowing that an author likes research too. It gives me a sense of comfort in this cold and colorless world. The type of research Fleming brings to this book really puts this book ahead of pack, though. You’ve got your basic historic documents, maps, original photographs, etc. That’s fine. Then you have a newly released Coast Guard file on Amelia. That’s interesting. Add into that the documents relating to the folks who thought they heard her on the radio and you might be set. But what I like is that the Bibliography doesn’t just throw all these sources down without a blink, but rather separates them into different categories. So on the one hand you might have “Family members and friends also left behind numerous reminiscences of Earhart” with a list shortly after “In addition to these archival collections, Earhart’s published works were particularly helpful” After that Fleming includes reliable websites relating to Earhart and Source Notes. With all this research I guess I kind of hoped that there’d be a little more speculation in the text itself on what actually happened to her body and her plane. Fleming recounts the rumors from the time period but refuses to go any further, not even mentioning modern speculations. I can see why this choice was made, and Fleming does link to The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (who, as of this review, are planning to conduct an underwater search for Earhart’s plane in July 2012) but it would have been nice to see a little allusion to the general vicinity of the plane’s possible last arrival too.
Want to know how you can get a kid who normally reads fiction into reading a biography? Here’s the trick. When talking up this title what you really need to concentrate on is how Fleming ratchets up the tension regarding Amelia’s rescue. Fleming meticulously covers the many close shaves and folks who accidentally heard her rescue cries, only to ignore them or misperceive them or, worst of all, report them only to be ignored. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if a certain kind of young reader skips the biographical details of Ms. Earhart’s life entirely and just reads the rescue mission sections alone. And it’s easy to forget while you’re reading that Amelia will never be rescued. Fleming’s writing is so intense, in fact, that I myself forgot this fact, half expecting to read about how they finally located her plane at long last on such-n-such an island. So to sell this to a kid you first play up the mystery element of her disappearance. Then you allude to her mysterious radio signals and the weird variety of folks who picked up on them. Kids love mysteries, and real world mysteries are some of the best.
I was speaking with someone the other day about failed children’s biographies and what exactly it is they do wrong. She made an excellent case, saying that if you have to ask “Why did you even WRITE this biography?” then the author’s doing something wrong. Earhart being who she was, you wouldn’t necessarily think such a question would arise, but even the most noteworthy individual needs a reason to have a whole book about them. You may be the first [blank] to have [blanked] but what does that mean, really? What does it signify? And why on earth should we have kids read about such a person? Fleming’s talents abound, but what I’ve always liked about her the most is her ability to show both the good and the bad in her subjects. The Great and Only Barnum did a superb job at synthesizing America’s best known humbug into a biographical format suitable for youth. So what makes Amelia noteworthy? Well, some of it is her accomplishments, sure as shooting. But in the end what Fleming manages to do is to balance our affection for the person with her need to advertise herself. Librarian Jennifer Hubert Swan called Amelia “the Lady Gaga of her time“. She curled her straight hair to make it look windblown. She filled her plane with signed stamp covers with the intention of sending the purchased items to folks after she finished her round-the-world flight. In the end, it may well be that the woman had more in common with P.T. Barnum than you might think. Pity those two crazy cats never met one another. You know that early aeronautics would have been right up Barnum’s alley.
And then there’s what not to say. I told my husband that I was reading a children’s biography of Amelia Earhart and he responded, “Oh. Does it mention her open marriage?” Well, shoot. Bring that up why don’t you? We are dealing with a biography for the young ‘uns after all, and to bring up the whole open marriage thing would require one to go so far as to explain what an open marriage is in the first place. And pretty much once you’ve gotten that far you’re in territory best befitting a bio for an older audience, so for the most part I had no problems with what Fleming chose to exclude from the book. However, like the aforementioned Ms. Swan I did find myself wishing that Fleming had explained some of the rudimentary basics involved in long-distance flying. Mainly, how the heck did Amelia Earhart go to the bathroom up there? If you read a book about astronauts that’s one of the first things you ponder. If you read about early aeronautics, the questions are the same.
There are days when I feel like the totality of women’s history boils down to moments when one woman decided to do something cool, then found herself competing with other women who (for the sake of publicity) wanted to do the same thing. Amelia’s predecessor in this way would have to be Nellie Bly, the intrepid reporter who traveled around the world in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds (not by plane). For this reason you might be inclined to pair Amelia Lost with Bylines: A Photobiography of Nellie Bly by Sue Macy. However, Fleming’s book would certainly have to be declared the superior of the two. Infinitely readable, even for those of the reluctant persuasion, Fleming melds fact and great storytelling together to bring us a tale as compelling as it is devastating. Not all great stories have happy endings and sometimes it’s more interesting when they don’t. Highly recommended.
On shelves February 8th.
Source: ARC sent from author for review consideration.
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