Sometimes it’s hard to tell fact from fiction. Time and again, I unearthed a telling incident or a charming anecdote only to learn that it wasn’t true. Frustrating? You bet. But it was also enlightening, a reminder that it is often difficult to find the history in the hype, to separate truth from myth.
I love how in the introduction, “Navigating History,” Fleming discusses her biggest challenge in terms of writing the book. It’s normally the sort of thing you read at the end of the book in an author’s note, but by placing it here front and center, she not only primes her readers to be thinking about the historian’s craft, but she also sets the table for the delineation of Amelia’s character and the interpretation of theme: despite more than a few personal shortcomings, she was an enormous role model for women.
Fleming’s decision to relate the search and rescue efforts in between the biographical chapters is nothing short of brilliant. In the beginning, the search and rescue chapters are more suspenseful than the biographical chapters, but by the end of the book it’s the biographical chapters that contain all the drama, while we become increasingly resigned to her fate in the search chapters. Many nonfiction books this year have featured a dramatic incident like this disappearance, but Fleming has milked hers for all its worth. Notice how she uses cliffhanger endings to propel the reader onward.
And in the radio room, Leo Bellarts and the other crew members sat listening to “the mournful sound of that static.”
Where, they wondered, was Amelia Earhart?
Little did Amelia know it would be the end of her happy childhood.
They believed she had attempted the journey alone. Hearing the man’s voice made them think it was a hoax. Logged O’Hare, “Guess it isn’t her now.”
Nineteen-year-old Amelia longed to fly away–but to where?
Was Mabel’s story true?
Could Amelia Earhart really be calling for help?
But something happened in California that changed her life forever.
Said Amelia, “Aviation caught me.”
Across the central Pacific, radiomen hunkered down next to their radios.
Would Amelia call?
What was this hazardous undertaking? Amelia asked.
But the man refused to tell her . . . yet.
And these are just chapter endings. Many of the chapter subdivisions end with cliffhangers, too. Note, also, the stylistic use of questions used here and throughout the text (sometimes rhetorically as in the quote above from the introduction) to engage readers. To my mind, AMELIA LOST is the most distinguished contribution in terms of plot. Nothing else I’ve read so far this year even comes close, and it’s especially impressive because biographies tend to be very uncreative in terms of plot (little more than a chronological progression through the subject’s life with occasional diversions that illuminate the time and place the subject lived in–boring!).
In Fleming’s biographies, I always end up learning as much about the setting as I do the characters–read THE LINCOLNS and THE GREAT AND ONLY BARNUM and you’re virtually an expert in nineteenth century America–and that’s certainly true here. Earhart’s all over the place–literally! She grows up in various cities in the Midwest, spends time on both coasts as a young woman, and travels the world as a famous aviator. Nevertheless I still felt a keen sense of time and place.
I also find AMELIA LOST to be most distinguished in terms of character. While Fleming may have had to pass over some telling incidents or charming anecdotes because they weren’t true, she still managed to include many others that reveal Amelia Earhart to be a very complex character.
Of course, Schmidt’s creation of Doug in OKAY FOR NOW rivals Fleming’s recreation of Amelia Earhart, and I cannot fault those who lean toward that being most distinguished in terms of character, but it’s very close and the genres are so different. For me, it’s like the recent finale of The Great Food Truck Race. In the final truck stop challenge, both Hodge Podge and the Lime Truck had to go deep-sea fishing, and cook a dish with that fish in order to win an advantage in the final contest. The Lime Truck won, primarily because the fish was the star of their dish. Hodge Podge, on the other hand, had caught a better fish (arguably), but the chef made the mistake of overshadowing the fish with extra ingredients, too many vegetables and then a remoulade sauce on top. The distraught chef later exclaimed that it was the remoulade sauce that was his undoing. So, for me, OKAY FOR NOW is kind of like Hodge Podge: it had a good thing going, it didn’t need to muck it up with the remoulade sauce. The character of Doug is superb, so why add all those plot elements in the last part of the book? On the other hand, I think the plot of AMELIA LOST allows the character of Amelia to shine through.
Here’s an example of how it all comes together, from page 92.
She needed more practice with her radio equipment, too. Joseph Gurr, who had been hired to install the plane’s communication system, was eager for Amelia to learn how to use her radio and direction-finding equipment. He wanted to show her how to tune the receivers and how to operate the transmitters; to teach her correct radio procedures and help her understand what her radio system could and could not do. But every time Gurr begged her to come for a lesson, she put him off. She was too busy, she said. Her schedule was full. Finally–just weeks before her departure–she turned up at the airport hangar. Relieved, Gurr assumed he had all day to teacher her everything about her radio. But after only an hour, Amelia left for an appointment. Gurr was stunned. “We never covered actual operations such as taking a bearing with the direction finder, [or] even contacting another radio station,” he recalled. This very brief lesson was Amelia’s only formal instruction in the use of her communication system. And it would be her gravest mistake. Wrote one aviation expert, “The solution to Amelia’s future communication problems was right at her fingertips–if only she had understood how her radio worked.”
But we see this recklessness foreshadowed earlier, sometimes it’s plain foolishness (remember when she takes off with an empty tank of gas?), sometimes it’s kind of born out of necessity (remember when she’s forced to fly a larger, more unwieldy plane with little training in order to compete in a race?), and sometimes it’s part of the millieu of early aviation history (Fleming paints a stark picture of the high mortality rate, an awareness punctuated in Amelia’s case by letters she left behind for loved ones in case of such an event). If this foreshadowing in the biographical chapters isn’t impressive enough, there is something akin to it happening in the search chapters, too. At this point in the narrative, we’ve read about the communication problems between Amelia and the Coast Guard, and we’ve read several accounts of people who heard Amelia’s radio messages for help. The question that naturally arises from those accounts is: Why? Why did Amelia have so much trouble making contact? And this is the final piece to the puzzle. Now it all makes sense. It’s like a double dose of foreshadowing: we understand that the careless nature of Amelia lead to negligence and that, in turn, greatly contributed to–if not, caused–this tragedy.
It is impossible to gauge how much Amelia’s life inspired the generations of women who came after her. At a time when women felt limited to the roles of wife and mother, she encouraged them to challenge themselves and seize their dreams. And she did it with zest, boldness, and courage.
Amelia Earhart was not afraid of death. She had said so many times. A paragraph from a letter she left behind in case she did nto return from her world flight proved that. She wrote:
Please know that I am quite aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.
As a grief-stricken Eleanor Roosevelt told reporters, “I am sure Amelia’s last words were ‘I have no regrets.'”
All of the literary elements–plot, character, setting, style, theme–fuse together so well that it is hard for me to segregate one out from the others. Plot informs character; character informs setting; setting informs style; style informs theme; theme informs plot. It’s a remarkable accomplishment. This one goes in my top three, too. Is it the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children? I see it as nothing less than an Honor book, and quite possibly the Medal.