In this brilliantly imagined novel, Amelia Earhart tells us what happened after she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared off the coast of New Guinea one glorious, windy day in 1937. And she tells us about herself.
There is her love affair with flying ("The sky is flesh")....
There are her memories of the past: her childhood desire to become a heroine.... her marriage to G.P. Putnam, who promoted her to fame, but was willing to gamble her life so that the book she was writing about her round-the-world flight would sell out before Christmas.
There is the flight itselfday after magnificent or perilous or exhilarating or terrifying day ("Noonan once said any fool could have seen I was risking my life but not living it").
And there is an island ("We named it Heaven, as a kind of joke...").
And, most important, there is Noonan....
About the Author
In 1992, Ms. Mendelsohn spotted an article in The New York Times about the discovery of a piece of a plane believed to have been Amelia Earhart's. The article mentioned that Earhart traveled with a navigator, Fred Noonan, who was with her on her last flight. Intrigued by the dramatic possibilities of two people flying around the world together, crashing, and perhaps surviving, she began researching Earhart's life and disappearance. Shortly after, Ms. Mendelsohn began sketching out a book based on her findings. The first version was a much longer book, told entirely in the third person. "Once I finished it," Ms. Mendelsohn says, "I realized that I had only just figured out the story. Now that I knew what had happened, I had to tell it in Earhart's, and my, voice." The result is I Was Amelia Earhart.
Harper's Bazaar hails I Was Amelia Earhart as "an immediately addicting book, as telegraphic as those of Margaret Duras, and as charged with longing....not to be missed." The New York Times writes, "Ms. Mendelsohn has chosen to use the bare-boned outlines of the aviator's life as an armature for a poetic meditation on freedom and love and flight. I Was Amelia Earhart, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez's General in His Labyrinth, invokes the spirit of a mythic personage, while standing on its own as a powerfully imagined work of fiction." I Was Amelia Earhart is Ms. Mendelsohn'sfirst book and novel.
Ms. Mendelsohn's reviews have appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Village Voice, The Guardian, The London Review of Books, and Yale Review. She has worked as an assistant to the literary editor at The Village Voice and as a tutor at Yale University. At the moment, Ms. Mendelsohn is writing a horror film. She is also sketching out details for her next novel.
Ms. Mendelsohn is married and lives in New York with her husband, filmmaker Nick Davis.
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.
Reading Group Guide
1. The novel's opening phrase-"the sky is flesh"-is repeated several times in the course of the story. What are some of the meanings that are evoked by this unusual statement? Do these meanings change, for you, as the novel progresses? In what other ways are images and descriptions of the sky used to convey feelings or states of mind?
2. The verb in the book's title is in the past tense, while the declarative statement indicates the continued presence of the speaker. On the first page of the novel's prologue, Amelia Earhart speaks of "now, " referring to "the life I've lived since I died." How does the novel play with the concept of time? How are the conventional categories of past, present, and future relevant? And to what uses does Jane Mendelsohn put them?
3. The novel alternates between third and first-person narration. The author has Amelia Earhart give us a reason for this stylistic choice on page 10, and elsewhere Jane Mendelsohn has said, "Maybe this sounds too mystical, but Earhart was showing me how to tell her story: I think she would have liked it" [from an interview with Joanne Kaufman, People, 6/17/96]. What is the effect of this alternating narrative voice upon the emerging portrait of Amelia Earhart? What is its effect upon your experience of the story?
4. The author seems to emphasize a second and equally important meaning of the word flight-that which has to do with fleeing, escape, or escapism. Amelia Earhart tells us on page 41 that she and Noonan share "a secret craving for oblivion." What are the differences, if any, between Earhart's obsession with flight and Noonan's addiction to drink? Why does Earhart conclude that "there is no such thingas oblivion. Oblivion is a lie"?
5. Consider Amelia's conversation with Owen, the reporter, on pages 34 to 37, in which the alarmingly negligent, even foolhardy aspects of the flight are discussed. Does Mendelsohn want us to conclude that Earhart had a death wish? Or that she was giving in to fate, or releasing control of her life, out of weariness, boredom, or some other reason? What might have provoked her to take such unnecessary risks?
6. Take a look at the following dense, lyrical passage: "The entire journey, flying as fast as possible like fugitive angels, took more than a month, during which time we spent our days feverish from the flaming sun or lost in the artillery of monsoon rains and almost always astonished by the unearthly architecture of the sky" [p. 39]. Also read the brilliant description of the plane's descent, on page 58. How would you describe the style of the writing? What aspects-word choice, image, rhythm-are particularly striking?
7. Earhart's last flight, like many others she made, was attempted in pursuit of a world record and for the sake of publicity. Her husband was promoting the book she would produce about her trip around the world (and after her disappearance he did publish a book in her name, Last Flight, from her notebooks and log reports). Is this book an imaginative effort to right the wrongs that Earhart suffered at the hands of her ambitious husband? How can a novelized "biography" such as this one revise our understanding of a historical figure?
8. Consider the scene at the Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Rangoon on pages 49 to 51. Why is Amelia so irritated by Noonan? What is the source of the conflict between them? How does this scene, along with the passage on pages 59 to 60, illuminate the character of each? Is their eventual love affair believable? Given their situation, is it inevitable?
9. How do you understand Amelia's relationship to her Electra? How do you interpret the intensity of her desire to be in the plane, to be in the air? What happens on her "midnight voyages" [p. 81]? What does this novel tell us about solitude, our craving for it, and what Robert Frost called the "desert places" within ourselves?
10. The silk scarf and the compact mirror are important elements in our understanding of the appearance Amelia Earhart wishes to present to the world, even when she has just ditched her plane on a deserted island [p. 74]. Why did she depend so heavily upon her looks and her sense of style? Do you think people would be so fascinated with her if she were not so beautiful? Why does she eventually throw the mirror into the sea?
11. "It was as if what she had considered to be her self all these years was only a magnified detail of an enormous painting whose entire composition and narrative she had never before known existed, let alone seen" [p. 114]. How does life "after death"-life on the island-change how Amelia experiences herself? What does she mean by saying, on page 138, "I had been risking my life without living it"? Does this insight render her heroic exploits meaningless?
12. Part Three of the novel begins with an epigraph from Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. How does this epigraph help you understand the lovers' final flight from rescue? What light does it shed on your reading of the book as a whole?
13. This book deals in large degree with romance, fantasy, and wish fulfillment. What do you find most romantic about it? Do you leave the novel wishing that Amelia Earhart did survive her last flight? That she had another, different life after her life of fame?
14. Amelia Earhart is recognized as one of the great heroines of the twentieth century. How does this novel affect your sense of her heroic stature?
15. Jane Mendelsohn has remarked that "flying is a lot like writing. The solitude, the adventure and the physical aspect of it. Sitting in front of the computer I sort of felt like I was in the cockpit. And there's the element of the unknown: the blank page and the empty sky" [interview, People, 6/17/96]. In what ways is flying a metaphor for the imagination? Why is Amelia Earhart a particularly good subject for an experiment in imagination?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
While the prose was lovely, I feel that the author spent too much time in writing poetic senntences rather than putting a coherent story together. Sommetimes revisioning history can be facinating, but here it falls flat. I had to make myself finish this book, felt liike wading through mud. Mercifully the book was very short (99 pages) so while i feel i wasted too much money on it, i did not waste too much time.
This book is a great concept. This book is a work of fiction. It takes what is known about a real event, and then it goes beyond the event and takes a fictional look at what might have happened afterward, or rather creates an entire story about what happens afterward. The book begins with Amelia Earhart getting ready to fly around the world. We're then with Amelia and her navigator when their plane goes down. It's there that the fiction really begins. Amelia and her navigator get stuck on an island, they're guessing somewhere on an Asian island, though they really don't know where they are. It's sort of Blue Lagoonish or Robinson Crusoeish after that. They figure out how to survive on the island, and they try to decide what they're going to do when no one seems to be coming to rescue them. It was interesting, though not usually my sort of fiction. It was an easy read, though. I finished it within a couple of hours.
If Amelia fell in love with Fred, she was brain dead! I started writing my own novel on the Women's Air Race three years ago. It's called Amelia's Voice. In it the reader goes down with the plane all right, but not on an island! And what about the women who made Amealia...Amelia. Women like Pancho Barnes, Louise Thaden, and Phoebe Omlie. What about the Women's Air Race, the celebs at the race, the dance afterwards in Ohio, the music, the age in which she flew. All that is lost on an island she never landed on! Good God is she had she would have drowned Fred!
Exceptional piece of work,particularly for a debut novel. I read Mendelsohn's 'Innocence' and found it quirky yet wonderfully written with a shocking twist, and that prompted me to pick up 'I was Amelia Earhart' and it was quite a good choice. I never wished once to put this book down, her writing style is unlike any other I've read, she elicits such beautiful words and images, spellbounding the reader and forcing them into her lyrical web.
This is a shimmering dream of a book, lyrical and romantic (in both senses of that word.) I listened to it on tape and decided I wanted to read it on the page. I recommended it to the rather diverse members of my family, all of whom greatly enjoyed it.
Gracious and breathtaking, this book is one of the finest I've read. It is thrilling and beautiful, provoking its reader to thought and emotion. The eloquently written lines flow like poetry. I've read this book many times and it continues to inspire me to live and love deeply.
I Was Amelia Earhart is a story filled with great lines, ideas, and philosophies. It's not just a theory about the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, it's a thought about life.