I Was Amelia Earhart: 75 Years Later the Legacy Lives On
July 2, 2012, marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, a woman who was a legend in her own time – and whose legacy is infused with intrigue and mystery. Over the decades since her disappearance, various theories have been explored, one of those being that Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, survived beyond that fateful day, finding residence on a desert island after setting out off the coast of New Guinea. (That theory made its way back into the news recently with the discovery of what might have been a jar from freckle cream possibly used by Earhart.) It is this theory on which Jane Mendelsohn’s novel, I Was Amelia Earhart, is based.
Earhart’s passion for aviation began fairly early in her life, but it wasn’t until her trans-Atlantic flight in 1928, at the age of thirty, that she became a celebrity pilot. As the first woman to fly solo over the Atlantic, her mark was made. With fame came the financial resources to fund her flying career and once she was off, she never looked back. In 1936, after setting numerous flying records, Earhart began planning her around-the-world trip with Noonan. Though their trip wouldn’t be the first circling of the globe by a pilot, it was certainly planned to be the longest at 29,000 miles, beginning in Hawaii. It was on this trip that Earhart and Noonan disappeared forever, somewhere over the Pacific, while en route to a stop on Howland Island. And it is at this moment in time that Mendelsohn’s novel begins.
What if Earhart and Noonan did, in fact, find themselves marooned on an island in the middle of the ocean? What if they made a life for themselves there, learning how to survive on fish and coconut, learning to build shelter and to befriend one another? What if Noonan lashed out at Earhart for being reckless in her fearlessness and Earhart’s resentment of Noonan’s drinking bubbled up to the surface? These are a fraction of the possibilities Mendelsohn explores in a novel that is brilliantly written. The year immediately following Earhart’s disappearance is imagined in detail that is at once concisely presented and immense in its depth. It is riveting, as Mendelsohn weaves together fact and fiction, incorporating precious details of Earhart’s real life into the aviator’s imagined memory-laced reflections.
And still, Mendelsohn creates a whole new iteration of Earhart – the woman after the fame, after the celebrity, whose skin is browned from the sun, whose lips are chapped from the salt air; ultimately, a woman who had perhaps “taken this journey in order to escape the madness of the world,” a woman who “didn’t give a damn if she was alone,” and finally, a woman who would “live the rest of her long and brilliant life on this wild and desolate island.”
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.
From the Hardcover edition.