Thursday, May 19, 2011

Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart may be one of the more popular, recognizable women names in our history and Candace Fleming's new nonfiction biography of the famous flier, throws into question nearly everything we've ever come to assume about the woman. It's a rather fascinating read.

For instance, was it widely known that as a young lady, Amelia and her sister Muriel loathed their father and his alcoholism? "Each night the girls listened for their father's footsteps outside the house. A brisk step meant that a sober, loving Edwin was coming home; a shuffling pace meant the return of that angry, thick-tongued stranger who cursed and yelled."?

Or how many people have heard of the name Amy Phipps Guest? Guest is the fifty-five year old wealthy woman that Amelia owes all her fame and fortune to. Guest wanted to become the sixth woman to attempt (and first to achieve) flying across the Atlantic. When her age got the best of her she opted to foot the bill instead. Amelia was pretty enough and bold enough to meet Guest's requirements. The rest is history.

Is it written in other Earhart biographies that Amelia often powdered her nose or applied fresh coats of makeup after crashes (which apparently happened all the time in the 1920's), just in case reporters would come? Or that she purchased a knee-length leather aviator jacket and slept in it for three nights straight, just to look the part of a pilot?

It's such an unflinching look at Amelia's life and Fleming doesn't hold back in her presentation. In fact, upon finishing this, it's difficult to find much to like about Earhart! She was arrogant, brass, cunning, and stubborn and she loved hoarding the spotlight (even at a young age). She loved speaking passionately to crowds of women, urging them and inspiring them to strive for more than they were given at that point in our history. Yet Amelia herself was never about to let any other woman steal her fame.

The most interesting thing to me, according to Fleming's research, is that nearly everything the general public was ever fed about Amelia's life was heavily fabricated by her and her husband George Putnam, all in an attempt to turn Amelia into a celebrity of sorts. In fact, Amelia was a rather poor pilot. Putnam worked incredibly hard to cover this up! Fleming suggests that there were plenty of other more talented female pilots flying at the time, but that Amelia was the only one seizing the stage and demanding all the glory.

Fleming balances the biography portion of the story with intermittent scenes from the rescue mission for Amelia. The pacing is suspenseful and the backstory Fleming fills in is surprisingly depressing in that Amelia may have no one to blame for her demise but herself. In turning down radio training in preparation for her final flight, in favor of press conferences and photo shoots, she was left with little to no knowledge of how the radio of her plane worked. Leaving her stranded with no means of communication once her plane missed its destination.

It's a captivating read and one that sheds new light on one of America's first and most popular heroines. It's definitely worth a read, regardless of how you feel about Amelia in the end.

Final Grade: A-

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