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25 September 2010 AMELIA LOST: THE LIFE AND DISAPPEARANCE OF AMELIA EARHART by Candace Fleming, Schwartz & Wade, March 2011, 128p., ISBN: 978-0-375-84198-9; Libr. ISBN: 978-0-375-94598-4


"A ghost of aviation

She was swallowed by the sky

Or by the sea like me she had a dream to fly

Like Icarus ascending

On beautiful foolish arms

Amelia it was just a false alarm"-- Joni Mitchell, "Amelia"


"Sometimes it's hard to tell fact from fiction.  Time and again, I unearthed a telling incident or charming anecdote only to learn that it wasn't true.  Frustrating?  You bet.  But it was also enlightening, a reminder that it is often difficult to find the history in the hype, to separate truth from fiction."


In her foreword to AMELIA LOST, author Candace Fleming debunks a story that Amelia Earhart told in her memoir about her first glimpse of an airplane.  Fleming then  asks:


"Why would Amelia make up such a story?"


And the answer is:


"Because she was a celebrity with an image to maintain, and almost everything she told the public was meant to enhance that image.  'I must continue to be a heroine in the public eye,' she once said, 'otherwise flying opportunities will stop rolling in.'  So Amelia Earhart (along with her husband, George Putnam) took an active role in mythologizing her own life.  She led the public to believe that her famous tousled hair was naturally curly, when in fact she took a curling iron to it each day.  She impressed the media with her quiet and demure attitude, when in truth she was forthright and outspoken.  And yes, she occasionally told fibs.  In short, she left behind layer upon layer of myth and legend."


Are we surprised that the legendary Amelia Earhart would be one part hype and b.s.?  Not if we think for a moment about the major industry that has long propped up the godlike images of generations of all-to-human stars of music and film and sport; how presidential biographers rewrite history; how we learn at a young age to put together a college application in which our best friends wouldn't recognize us; and how we all have an uncle who tells stories that no one in their right mind would believe in their entirety -- unless he happened to get these stories published in a book.


Fleming does something really important in this foreword, because when we read something in a book, so many of us are apt to just believe it.  We are told to double-check what we find on websites, because "anyone can post information there."  There are teachers who blindly forbid their students from ever using Wikipedia for retrieving information.  But these same teachers will often buy anything that some politician, historian, business executive, or professor writes -- if it is in a book. Use two sources to insure accuracy?  Have they never read LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME in which James Loewen illustrated, among other things, how the authors of American history texts copy each other's fiction, thus guaranteeing that one can verify the same lies in book after book after book.


Thus, it is interesting as all getup to delve into AMELIA LOST, after being warned that Earhart created her own fictional persona.  Every time Fleming quotes Earhart, I'm thinking to myself, "Is this truth or hype?" 


The problem, of course, is that I should be thinking this way with every book I read.  If only we did a better job of teaching students to maintain a degree of skepticism when consuming any work of (supposed) nonfiction. 


As Fleming continues on to note in her foreword, Earhart "symbolized the new opportunities awaiting women in the twentieth century.  There is no disputing the pivotal role Amelia Earhart played in American history, helping to tear down sections of the wall that had previously prevented women from aspiring to equal opportunities in education, career, and positions of power.  There is no question that Earhart is a subject worthy of Fleming's and our attention.   


"'Study whatever you want, she counseled us girls.  'Don't let the world push you around.'"    


And it took no effort to maintain that attention as I read this exciting and exceptional biography.  AMELIA LOST alternates between the chapters of Earhart's high-profile life and the hours and days that surround her still-unsolved mysterious disappearance somewhere in the Pacific.  The brief chapters that focus on her failure to arrive at Howland Island (halfway between Hawaii and Australia) are incredibly compelling.  I had to keep reminding myself as I read them that this is history and there would be no last-moment miracle when I turned the page.


One thing that we certainly learn in AMELIA LOST, is that Earhart was but the most prominent loss amongst so many aviation pioneers who did not survive those early years.  And with the stories Fleming provides, we can see that Amelia was lucky to survive as long as she did:


"With her book written, Amelia now turned to her next adventure, 'vagabond[ing] in the air.'  She knew where she wanted to go -- across the country to California.  So she bought a handful of road maps, then headed west in the little  Avian airplane she'd bought herself in England.  "George went along with Amelia on the first leg of the trip.  But he soon experienced the dangers of flying, when Amelia tried to land at Rodgers Field outside Pittsburgh.  In those days, there were few airstrips, so pilots landed in any open space they could find.  In this case, Amelia chose a farm field, complete with rocks, gullies and tree stumps.  As the plane bumped across the uneven earth, it rolled into a ditch and flipped over.  "'I was utterly petrified, but Amelia took it in stride,' recalled George.  She just pulled the plane out by its tail and assessed the damage -- a broken propeller and cracked landing gear.  In the 1928 world of flying, this sort of accident was common.  Still it was enough adventure for George.  He returned to New York while Amelia had the plane repaired and continued with her flight." 


Available just in time for Women's History Month, AMELIA LOST is an entertaining and essential addition to the children's literature related to our history.    


Richie Partington, MLIS
Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.com
Moderator http://groups.yahoo.com/group/middle_school_lit/

FTC NOTICE: Richie receives free books from lots of publishers who hope he will Pick their books.  You can figure that any review was written after reading and dog-earring a free copy received.  Richie retains these review copies for his rereading pleasure and for use in his booktalks at schools and libraries.

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