Sunday, November 1, 2009

I was Amelia Earhart by Jane Mendelsohn

This surrealistic little novel was the book I was reading, or rather trying to read, when my mother died back in 2002. With the buzz about the new Amelia Earhart movie roaring like an airplane engine and feeding my longstanding fascination with her still unresolved fate, I decided to give this tiny volume another try.

In its pages, Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, find themselves marooned on a desert island. Here time, without calendars and clocks, proves elusive and as slippery as an eel, darting randomly between past, present, and future, and this may confuse readers to some degree. The narrator, Amelia Earhart, with her hair grown long as it was before she became famous, thinks of her former life as like a dream, almost as if it had all happened to another person, hence the title: I WAS Amelia Earhart.

She sees herself and Noonan as two damned souls; the drunk navigator who didn't care where he was going and the reckless pilot who didn't care if they ever got there. The two dislike each other almost from first sight, and they alternate between constant bickering, giving each other the silent treatment, and separate accommodations on opposite ends of the island. But circumstances force them to come together; on this minuscule godforsaken little island, which they jokingly name "Heaven," each other is all they really have. Noonan, who began his career as a kitchen boy when he went to sea at fifteen, cooks their dinner every night on the beach, serving up the catch of the day--fish or crabs--or, in times of empty-bellied desperation, stringy rats, all washed down with toothachingly sweet coconut milk. Afterwards, he plays his harmonica and Amelia sings Shirley Temple's theme song "On The Good Ship Lollipop" or advertising jingles. Sometimes the two even make love, but "it's understood that it doesn't mean anything," even when they both know that it does.

The whole book has a hallucinogenic quality; reality blurs and time drifts and shifts. The tale told within its pages could just as easily be a hallucination suffered by the aviatrix flying at too high an altitude, or it might all be a waking fantasy or a sleeping dream, or, as the immortal bard once said, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy," it might even be true. After all, stranger things have happened, and the castaway theory is not new to the list of possible fates for Amelia and Fred.

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