I Was Amelia Earhart
by Jane Mendelsohn
1997 (reprinted edition)
This is more of a reflection – an appreciation, really – rather than a review of Jane Mendelsohn’s first novel I Was Amelia Earhart. I say this because I read this in one sitting more than a year ago, during a fickle weather summer day at my aunt and uncle’s beach house. Even though I wrote down the quotes I loved from the novel and I remember loving the entire book itself, it has been too long now to adequately conjure up the stuff that makes for a proper review.
That being said, I think one of the hallmarks of a great book is the hold it has on the reader long after it is finished – and I’ve often thought of I Was Amelia Earhart in the year since.
Google, that informer of all things necessary to know, tells me through its doodle that today marks Amelia Earhart’s 115th birthday, so what better time to share this wonderful book with you?
For starters, this is a really different kind of book. Mendelsohn weaves fact and fiction of Amelia Earhart’s life, that with her wealthy New York publisher husband G.P. Putnam and her drunken navigator Frederick Noonan. She imagines what may have happened during their ill-fated flight and the aftermath, which, in I Was Amelia Earhart, is longer than we may have thought. It is rendered beautifully and vividly between the first and third person (not an easy feat!).
And the writing. I can’t say enough about the writing (every writer should read this, honestly) so I am just going to let the quotes stand alone with this one. (This was one of those novels where I could have highlighted every passage. It was just that gorgeous. I was enraptured by the fourth sentence, I swear.) I couldn’t pick just one or two to share with you. Here are nine of them.
“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.” (pg. 1)
“Only much later did I realize what I had done by marrying him. I didn’t blame myself, but I realized that I had surrendered to the whims of men – even I who had been so bold and independent, even I who had taken on the humilating task of sitting in the back of an airplane like cargo when I knew perfectly well that I could fly it myself better than the so-called pilot in the cockpit – I realized that I had surrendered so easily because I had been, despite my most vigilant efforts, infatuated with the men who made the rukes. Sitting in my future husband’s office, listening to the drone of his comfortable voice, I felt an infinite rush of sympathy for him. O knew he was hidden, even from himself, and I wanted to be the only person who really knew him. Later, this realization made me suspect that I had loved my husband. Selfishly, but at least I had loved him.” (pg. 18)
“By 1937, at the tender age of thirty-nine, she was the loneliest of heroines. She was more expressive around the eyes, and no movie star seemed as mysterious as she or wore leather and silk with such glamorous nonchalance. But she felt as though she had already lived her entire life, having crossed the Atlantic solo and set several world records, and she had no one to share her sadness with, least of all her husband. Her husband, G.P., her business manager. He’s the husband who made her famous, who devoted himself to her, even when she hated him, even when he hated her back. She needs him so that she can fly, so that she can escape from him, so that she can escape from the very people who worship her.” (pg. 19)
“Radio interview:“Miss Earhart, would you like to tell our radio listeners anything else about your trip?
I’m very much looking forward to it.
What I think the public would most like to know, Miss Earhart, is why, why do such a daredevil kind of thing?
Because I want to. And because I think women should do for themselves the things that men have done, and have not done.” (pg. 24-25)
“Much later, when I looked back on the flight, it seemed to me that we had been two lost souls in an immense netherworld, traveling toward an arbitrary goal, wondering which of us was more forsaken: the navigator who didn’t care where we were going, or the pilot who didn’t care if we ever got there.We must have both known that we shared something, a secret craving for oblivion. But there is no such thing as oblivion. Oblivion is a lie.” (pg. 40-41)
“We became voyeurs of the intimate relationship between wind and sand. We watched the air draw fine lines on the surface of the desert and make wrinkles in the face of the wasteland. We saw a dust storm whip the ground into the air until the world disappeared from sight. Later, in the aftermath of the apocalypse, ominious black eagles appeared out of nowhere, winging around us, like carpetbaggers hoping to benefit from the devastation of a war.” (pg. 46)
“They were both dying ridiculous deaths, she thought, brought about by hubris and liquor. They might as well have been lovers, she thought. They had made all the blunders of a typical couple: he had woken up from the dream too late, and she was too angry to forgive him for his absence. It was tragic, but life was tragic, especially the mysterious entanglements of men and women.” (pg. 59)
“When she thinks of her father now, she sees him at the end of the day. That’s his time of day, twilight, or just before. The late afternoon, when the sun is setting, when it feels sad and beautiful, like the last day. When the sadness is too unbearable to think about, and this makes you strangely cheerful.” (pg. 95) (I absolutely love, love, LOVE this quote. I’ve used this several times in posts on this blog and if there’s a way I can ever get the OK to use it in my own novel, I want it to be so.)
“There is a time known as the between. The between voyager travels through uncharted territory, navigating dangers, attempting passage into the next life. There are times in life, after a death of some kind, when we are open to the slightest shifts, when our powers are acute, when we can change the future. The between voyager temporarily possesses an immensely heightened intelligence, extraordinary powers of concentration, special abilities of clairvoyance and teleportation, flexibility to becomes whatever can be imagined, and the openness to be radically transformed by a thought or a vision or an instruction.” (pg. 138-139) Bold lines are from Robert A.F. Thurman’s commentary in his translation of The Tibetian Book of the Dead.
I Was Amelia Earhart is Jane Mendelsohn’s debut novel. She has since gone on to write Innocence (which I wasn’t so much a fan of) and American Music (which I absolutely loved). Suffice it to say, she is one of my favorite authors (and I hope is working on something new.)