I Was Amelia Earhart

Katherine Whittamore reviews "I Was Amelia Earhart" by Jane Mendelsohn.

By Katherine Whittamore

Published April 22, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

"Hubris and liquor" made Amelia Earhart crash, according to Jane Mendelsohn, her literary channeler in "I Was Amelia Earhart." "The more he (her navigator, Fred Noonan) drank, the more reckless she became, the more he drank." If you don't mind riding on thermals of speculation without a glider of fact, you'll love this novel, which purports to tell the story of Earhart and Noonan after their plane goes down. If you do mind, "I Was Amelia Earhart" will feel indulgent and bothersome until about page 46, when the imaginative loop-de-loops arch into something higher than sheer style: "We saw the same sights and felt the same breezes," writes Mendelsohn of Earhart and Noonan, pre-flameout. "We watched the same moon dip in and out of the same clouds. We felt the same rain and heard the same silences. It was like sharing a dream with someone else."

We learn of Earhart's little-loved husband G.P. Putnam, with his "studied New York charm," and her failed inventor father. We read the telegram from the Roosevelts. We appreciate, if never warm to, the aviatrix's uncompromising personality; "I have not one self-sacrificing, maternal bone in my unwomanly, muscular body," as she says. But she loves her plane, "a barge of beaten silver," with its cruddy radio and bamboo fishing pole, along which messages were sent from tail to cockpit. We hear about the month-long trip across the world, most nights spent sleeping in hangars "on rancid cots, with sinister stains."

But all this is preparation for part two of the book, where the pair ends up, yessir, on a desert island. "TV movie," one groans, but this is where Mendelsohn's flights of fancy spiral the highest. The book now becomes a great read. Earhart and Noonan move from hope of rescue to bickering, hatred, and madness; to love and then to fear of rescue, against a backdrop of coconut palms, "slate-colored sharks," heatwaves so bad Noonan's skin bleeds, monsoons where the "clouds turned purple, bruising before our eyes," and sweaty lovemaking. He does the fishing and she builds the fires, as well as "replicas of the Hoover Dam, the Eiffel Tower, and then, when she is at her most despairing, a scale model of the Brooklyn Bridge."

It sounds like a cloying montage, but it isn't. Both realize that the booze and the flying were more escapes from life than runs at transcendence; by deplaning from the world of publicists and reporters and expected behaviors, they get their lives back. "Noonan once said any fool could have seen I was risking my life but not living it," as Earhart/Mendelsohn says. A year past the crash, after a supper of shark fin soup, the two go for a swim in the lagoon, "where they were both struck at the same moment with the realization that they had never been so happy." You may not feel quite the same way -- the prose is lovely, but completely humorless -- yet the book does spirit you aloft. It brings Amelia Earhart to life, more than any straight biography ever could.

Katherine Whittamore

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