Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart

I've always thought of Amelia Earhart as a legend. Candace Fleming's 2011 biography about the aviator presents her as a real person who followed her heart.  There are details in the book that make Earhart's disappearance less of a mystery and more of a tragedy of poor judgment.

Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart tells in alternating chapters the story of Earhart's life and what happened in the hours, days and weeks following her disappearance. The biography is written for kids age 8 - 12, but it's so well done that adults will appreciate the book.

At 10 a.m. on July 2, 1937, Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan took off from Lae, New Guinea, heading for Howland Island, a minuscule piece of land in the Pacific Ocean. It was the most difficult leg of their 27,000 mile journey. Finding the island would be akin to finding a needle in a haystack.

Howland Island was within flying distance of both New Guinea and Hawaii. When planning her trip, Earhart at first had considered requesting help from the Navy to refuel in the air between New Guinea and Hawaii. But then she asked President Roosevelt to build her an airstrip on Howland Island. He authorized the funds, and asked that it be built swiftly and secretly. "After all, commented one Earhart biographer, 'the American taxpayer -- in the throes of the Great Depression -- might not have understood the necessity of building an entire airport for one-time use by a private individual'" (90).

Before reaching Howland Island, Earhart and Noonan disappeared.  I didn't know until reading this book that Earhart was heard on radio transmissions after the disappearance.  The U.S. military searched for 16 days.  They covered 250,000 square miles and spent what today is the equivalent of about $58 million dollars.  But neither Earhart or Noonan, or any wreckage, were ever recovered.

Earhart's technical advisor Paul Mantz and communications expert Joseph Gurr thought that Earhart needed more practice with her new plane before attempting her around the equator flight.  Gurr recalled that Earhart spent only one hour with him going over the communications system.  He said, "We never covered actual operations such as taking a bearing with the direction finder, [or] even contacting another radio station" (92).  Some aviation experts speculate that understanding how her plane's radio worked may have saved her life and the life of Fred Noonan.

Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart is a welcome addition to biographies for children.  The writing is good, the layout is attractive, and the photographs are interesting.  Sidebars present  additional facts.  My only complaint is that I found it difficult to read the black type on the pages and sidebars colored grey.

Amelia Earhart was an icon for American women.  "Wrote biographer Mary S. Lovell, '[It] is the legend of an ordinary girl growing up into an extraordinary woman who dared to attempt seemingly unattainable goals in a man's world'" (110).  For that, I am thankful.

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