"Hubris and liquor" made Amelia Earhart crash, according to Jane Mendelsohn, her literary channeler in I Was Amelia Earhart. "The more he (her navigator, Fred Noonan) drank, the more reckless she became, the more he drank." If you don't mind riding on thermals of speculation without a glider of fact, you'll love this novel, which purports to tell the story of Earhart and Noonan after their plane goes down. If you do mind, I Was Amelia Earhart will feel indulgent and bothersome until about page 46, when the imaginative loop-de-loops arch into something higher than sheer style: "We saw the same sights and felt the same breezes," writes Mendelsohn of Earhart and Noonan, pre-flameout. "We watched the same moon dip in and out of the same clouds. We felt the same rain and heard the same silences. It was like sharing a dream with someone else."
We learn of Earhart's little-loved husband G.P. Putnam, with his "studied New York charm," and her failed inventor father. We read the telegram from the Roosevelts. We appreciate, if never warm to, the aviatrix's uncompromising personality; "I have not one self-sacrificing, maternal bone in my unwomanly, muscular body," as she says. But she loves her plane, "a barge of beaten silver," with its cruddy radio and bamboo fishing pole, along which messages were sent from tail to cockpit. We hear about the month-long trip across the world, most nights spent sleeping in hangars "on rancid cots, with sinister stains."
But all this is preparation for part two of the book, where the pair ends up, yessir, on a desert island. "TV movie," one groans, but this is where Mendelsohn's flights of fancy spiral the highest. The book now becomes a great read. Earhart and Noonan move from hope of rescue to bickering, hatred, and madness; to love and then to fear of rescue, against a backdrop of coconut palms, "slate-colored sharks," heatwaves so bad Noonan's skin bleeds, monsoons where the "clouds turned purple, bruising before our eyes," and sweaty lovemaking. He does the fishing and she builds the fires, as well as "replicas of the Hoover Dam, the Eiffel Tower, and then, when she is at her most despairing, a scale model of the Brooklyn Bridge."
It sounds like a cloying montage, but it isn't. Both realize that the booze and the flying were more escapes from life than runs at transcendence; by deplaning from the world of publicists and reporters and expected behaviors, they get their lives back. "Noonan once said any fool could have seen I was risking my life but not living it," as Earhart/Mendelsohn says. A year past the crash, after a supper of shark fin soup, the two go for a swim in the lagoon, "where they were both struck at the same moment with the realization that they had never been so happy." You may not feel quite the same way -- the prose is lovely, but completely humorless -- yet the book does spirit you aloft. It brings Amelia Earhart to life, more than any straight biography ever could. -- Salon
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Past and present, fact and fiction, first-person and third blend into a life of the celebrated aviatrix-both before and after her famed disappearance in 1937, at age 39-that unfolds with the surreal precision of a dream and that marks first novelist Mendelsohn as a writer to watch. "The sky is flesh," begins the first of the scores of discrete vignettes and reflections that make up the narrative, an apt start to a story drenched in sensuality and the pursuit of it. The Earhart limned here is materialistic, glory-seeking, sexually hungry, outrageously self-absorbed and utterly charismatic. Telling her tale with ruthless honesty in both her own voice and that of the self she sees "from far away... ghostly, aerial," she speaks of her days as America's sweetheart, as the wife of publisher G.P. Putnam. Diverting from the historical record, she also speaks of the years after she and her navigator, Frederick J. Noonan, "a drunk," crash-land on a South Sea island that they name "Heaven, as a kind of joke," but that becomes a decent approximation as the years slip by and the castaways discover happiness in nature and in each other's arms. When rescue seems eminent, Earhart and Noonan take to the air one last time, and crash one last time, perhaps into eternity but in any case into an existence defined by not by control but by "abandonment"-a message in keeping with the story's theme but in fact an ironic one for a novel as calculatedly lovely and moving as this one. (Apr.)
This first novel treats an enduring modern mystery: what happened to Amelia Earhart, the celebrity aviator who vanished in 1937 while piloting her Lockheed Electra around the world? Amelia reveals her fate in a memoir written in her pilot's log after an emergency landing on a remote Pacific island. At first hopeful of rescue, Amelia and navigator Fred Noonan gradually realize that their old lives are gone. As they use the island's limited resources to create sustenance and shelter, their former animosities wear away, and in time they find a kind of love together. Amelia's fictional voice is dreamlike yet convincing, moving between first and third person, in and out of memories, always mourning the loss of the sky. The book's stylized narration may not engage every historical fiction fan, but readers of aviation history or speculative fiction will find much to interest them here.-Starr E. Smith, Marymount Univ. Lib., Arlington, Va.
School Library Journal
YA-This short fictional account seeks to answer the question, "What happened to Amelia Earhart?" Shifting between a first- and third-person narrative, the well-crafted tale draws readers into the personalities of both the aviatrix and her navigator, Fred Noonan, both of whom disappeared on a round-the-world record-making flight in 1937 somewhere near New Guinea. Mendelsohn imagines what might have happened if the plane had landed on an island rather than disappearing into the ocean. Using only a few authentic words credited to the pilot, the author creates a novel that might have been written in Earhart's log for future generations to discover. A flashback reveals the woman's earlier life and the events leading up to the tragic leg of the final flight. The love-hate relationship between Earhart and her husband and manager, G.P. Putnam, is sufficiently sketched to help explain why she was flying in such poor weather with a useless radio and a drunken navigator as her only guide. Survival on the island they name "Heaven" is Earhart and Noonan's single goal. There is the need for food, shelter, water, and finally companionship. Day after day moves on, altering both the characters themselves and forcing them to face their fate together. This is a fast-paced survival story, a tale of relationships, and a mythical account of what might have been. Altogether a great read.Dottie Kraft, formerly at Fairfax County Public Schools, VA
A terrific meditation on freedom and love in flight, it stands on its own as a powerfully imagined work of fiction...Ms. Mendelsohn invests her story with force of fable. -- The New York Times
First-novelist Mendelsohn gives us Amelia Earhart's fictive autobiography, written as a message in a bottle from the desert island on which she spent her last days.
We're kept pretty close to the facts here for most of the story: Earhart's flying, her marriage to New York publisher G.P. Putnam, her ambiguous sexuality, and her celebrity as a public figure are all components of this putative memoir, which proceeds as a straightforward recollection of the past. The central narrative event is the planning and execution of Earhart's final around-the-world flight, presented here mostly as a publicity stunt gone awry. "After I flew across the Atlantic and became famous, G.P. decided to mold me into a star." And how: Once Putnam became Earhart's husband and manager, every aspect of her career was choreographed for maximum public exposure. Flight logs were written for publication, press conferences and radio communications were recorded for the archives, and itineraries were chosen with a view toward public titillation. On a crucial leg of the final flight in 1937, however, Putnam's skill as a showman becomes Earhart's undoing when the tiny Pacific island where she was meant to make a daring stopover can't be located, forcing her to ditch on an even smaller desert atoll where she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, are out of radio range and cut off from the rest of the world. The later, Robinson Crusoe-like portions of Earhart's account are written under the heavy weight of her solitude, and the inevitable affair with Noonan does little to relieve the intensity of the fear and nostalgia that color the account toward the close. The melancholy tone of the opening is completed splendidly in the flat stoicism of the end.
Strange, slight, but wonderful: a modest portrait that manages to create some moments of exceptional intensity and power of feeling.
Read an Excerpt
I WAS AMELIA EARHART
The sky is flesh.
The great blue belly arches up above the water and bends down behind the line of the horizon. It's a sight that has exhausted its magnificence for me over the years, but now I seem to be seeing it for the first time.
More and more now, I remember things. Images, my life, the sky. Sometimes I remember the life I used to live, and it feels impossibly far away. It's always there, a part of me, in the back of my mind, but it doesn't seem real. Whether life is more real than death, I don't know. What I know is that the life I've live since I died feels more real to me than the one I lived before.
I know this: I risked my life without living it. Noonan once said any fool could have seen I was risking my life but not living it. I had already been flying for a long time when he said that. It was 1937. I was thirty-nine. I was more beautiful than ever, but an aura of unhappiness traveled with me, like the trail of a falling comet. I felt as though I had already lived my entire life, having flown the Atlantic and set several world records, and there was no one to share my sadness with, least of all my husband. Charmed by my style and my daring exploits, the public continued to send me flowers and gifts, but the love of strangers meant nothing to me. My luminous existence left me longing and bored. I had no idea what it meant to live an entire life. I was still very young.
So, the sky.
It's the only sky that I can remember, the only one that speaks to me now.
I'm flying around the world, there's nothing but sky. The sky is flesh. It's the last sky.
I remember: I'm flying around the world, I'm flying over the Pacific somewhere of the coast of New Guinea in my twin-engine Lockheed Electra, and I'm lost. I watch the sky as it curves and swells, and every now and then I think I can see it shudder. Voluptuous, sultry in the naked heat, it seems to me to be the flesh of a woman. But then suddenly the light illuminates a stretch of more masculine proportions a muscular passage of azure heft, a wide plank like the back of a hand and I have to acknowledge, although I hate to admit it, the bisexuality of nature. I purse my lips a little when I realize this, and scrunch my nose up to rearrange my goggles. My eyes and my eyes reflected in the windshield hold the sun in them, and it burns. I blink and reach one arm directly overhead. My fingers grasp a dial. Out of the far corner of my field of vision, I catch a glimpse of the underlying sea. Thinking to myself that this might be the last day of my life, that I'm hot, and that I am hungry, I adjust the dial and lower my arm. The sea is dark. It is darker than the sky.
This is the story of what happened to me when I died. It's also the story of my life. Destiny, the alchemy of fate and luck. I think about it sometimes, under a radiant sun. The tide laughs. The light swims. I watch the fish-skeleton shadows of the palm leaves on the sand. The clouds ripped to shreds.
Today when I think of my former life, I think of it as a dream. In the dream I am another person. In the dream I am the most famous aviatrix of my day, a heroine. I am Amelia Earhart.