Biography: Amelia Earhart

In a rush before the library closed its doors, I grabbed the first three Amelia Earhart biographies I could find that weren’t written for children.

I read the shortest one first, naturally, but I was it was very disappointing (Amelia Earhart: The Sky’s No Limit, American Heroes, Forge Paperback 2009). Most of it read like a math word problem written by someone at the Huffington Post. At no point during the numbering of flight times,¬†altitudes, accreditations,¬†distances, height, shoe size, or number of hard-boiled eggs consumed did I suspect that Amelia Earhart had a personality.

However, I still choked up at the last chapter because I knew so little about Earhart’s disappearance that I didn’t realize she had been in communication with a Navy ship right up until the last minute. That she disappeared and likely died so near her goal, on nearly the last leg of her round-the-world journey, and on the last big flight she wanted to finish, was just too terrible of an irony.

The second book, The Sound of Wings (Mary S. Lovell, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2009), was awesome. Amelia Earhart and her husband George Putnam were rendered vividly in every dimension: all their schemes and social maneuvers, their genuine love and affection, and their incredible talents and outrageous ambitions. Amelia Earhart stopped being this legendary figure, this icon of a capable and courageous woman, and became instead a mediocre pilot who pushed the limits imposed on her by society and technology by sheer force of will and stubborn, stupid determination.

In many ways, the story of a regular woman who wasn’t preternaturally talented, but actually had to study and practice and in the end just be bold, was much more inspiring. She didn’t learn to fly, break a few records, make it across the Atlantic by herself, and almost all the way around the world because she was born with some superhuman abilities. She just wanted it really bad and she worked hard, and that’s all any of us can do.

There were a few surprises and disappointments, however. Lovell as her biographer was explicit about her belief that Earhart would not be the household name she was then and now if it weren’t for the master marketing mind she had in George Putnam. Earhart and Putnam went so far as to approach other women pilots with friendly gestures and then use the information they gathered from them to undermine their plans and complicated their relationships with authorities and the press.

For example, did you know Elinor Smith as a 16 year-old stunt pilot got in trouble for flying under four bridges in New York? I didn’t, and that’s just the kind of badassery that I want to know about. I think that little girls and boys should hear about those kinds of exploits by women from a very young age. It’s Lovell’s conviction (and Smith’s, too, though I haven’t read her autobiography) that Putnam worked hard to make sure Smith’s name stayed out of the papers and that’s too bad. There were actually more than 100 licensed female pilots contemporary with Amelia Earhart, and it would be better for everyone if we could look back across history and realize that ambitious and brave women weren’t so few and far between. I don’t blame Earhart for not just taking one for Team American Women, but I don’t know if turning other female pilots into the enemy and then destroying their marketing opportunities was the option that lets you sleep peacefully at night.

Of course, despite all that drama, reading about Earhart really inspired me. No matter what else, she was tough and she pushed herself, even when other people didn’t understand what she was trying to prove: Maybe the hardest thing to conquer isn’t the Atlantic, alone in a lame plane. Maybe the hardest barriers you have to cross are your own.

I remember her choking on plane fumes for hours while flying over the black ocean and I realize I can probably run a few hundred more yards, or ride my bike to the library even though it’s hot outside, or get out of bed with the alarm even though I’m sleepy. I’ve also decided to start training for a local marathon in November and I’m tentatively, quietly looking into the possibility of maybe doing a solo trip on the Great Allegheny Passage–330 miles from Pittsburgh to D.C. because if all I have to do is want it and work at it, then I have no excuse not to.

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