I Was Amelia Earhart
Jane Mendelsohn
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Get *I Was Amelia Earhart* delivered to your door! I Was Amelia Earhart
Jane Mendelsohn
Alfred A. Knopf
146 pages
April 1996
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

When Amelia Earhart disappeared off the New Guinea coast in 1937 while attempting to fly around the world, she flew straight into our modern mythology. The truth of what happened to this most famous aviatrix has never been discovered, and the not-knowing fuels our continuing fascination.

In her first novel, Jane Mendelsohn imagines what might have happened, crafting an hypnotic fictional memoir. The Amelia Earhart presented here is fiercely independent and unconventional, a heroine who is sympathetic without being the least bit sentimental. Earhart muses on her childhood, her marriage to G.P. Putnam, her love of flying, on herself, examining her own motives and desires with a somehow passionate dispassion, a satisfied calm belying a great deal of potential energy.

Before the round-the-world flight attempt begins, Earhart frankly describes her relationship with her navigator, Fred Noonan, with whom she will shortly be marooned. In so doing, she reveals as much about herself:

I had to take Noonan with me because we had run out of money and he was the cheapest navigator we could find. G.P. said he was the best, and that may have been true, but he was definitely the cheapest. He was cheap because he'd been fired from Pan Am for drinking and he couldn't find another job. I didn't want to take him. I didn't want to take anybody...We are not lovers. We have never been lovers. We could not have been further from being lovers unless we had never met. Neither one of us finds the other attractive...He is persnickety, easily frightened, and irresponsible. To him I embody the most unfeminine qualities...I have not one self-sacrificing, maternal bone in my unwomanly, muscular body.

When the flight goes wrong and Earhart disappears from the historical record, it is with this man she must survive. On the island they name Heaven, Earhart embarks upon a different journey, toward self- acceptance and understanding:

When I was very young, six or seven, I already wanted to die. I already had the dream. I wanted to escape, to go higher, to leave my body, and this made me seem ambitious, greedy for life. When I was young, people hated my greediness, but they enjoyed it too. A little girl filled with desire is a beautiful sight, ugly, but very beautiful...Sometimes I remember the life I used to live, and it feels impossibly far away...Whether life is more real than death, I don't know. What I know is that the life I've lived since I died feels more real to me than the one I lived before...Noonan once said any fool could have seen I was risking my life but not living it.

Time, isolation, and the basic struggle to survive bring about an inevitable-seeming love between Earhart and Noonan. When they believe that their crashed Electra has been spotted by a plane, they prepare the Electra for one final flight. Not knowing whether the plane that appears to have spotted them is Japanese or American, they make the decision to hold on to the life that they, and fate, have made for themselves. As they make their way to the Electra, the revelation becomes clear:

The navigator feels so alone at the thought of losing her. The pleasure he takes in her, in being with her, is the only pleasure he knows anymore...He realizes that without doing anything he has fallen in love, beyond love, out of love into life...In the jungle, in the dirty heat, he kisses her, and she kisses him, and they lie down together. They take each other on the floor of the jungle, and they know now that there is no difference between being rescued and being captured.

What could have been just an academic exercise in "what-ifs" becomes, in Mendelsohn's capable hands, an arresting portrait of a life at last lived to the fullest.

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