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No You Weren’t

I Was Amelia Earhart
by Jane Mendelsohn. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1996. 146 pp. $18.00 hardcover

Review by Phil Scott. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Poor Amelia Earhart. Ever since she disappeared, her soul has had to endure the torment of a rash of nonfiction works proposing to solve the mystery once and for all. And now this overheated, overbearing, over-praised novel joins them. Author Jane Mendelsohn’s Earhart is dark, brooding, and afflicted with a death wish; then, when she and navigator Fred Noonan crash-land on a desert island, the situation deteriorates into a cross between Gilligan’s Island and a middle-aged Blue Lagoon. Personally, I was hoping more for Lord of the Flies.

This book has it all, even a convincing argument against reincarnation. There is foreshadowing troweled on thicker than adobe, though only the densest reader wouldn’t have a clue about Earhart’s fate. There is also a pretentious, phony-profound solemnity reminiscent of a sophomore fiction writing class, plus reams of torrid prose: “I watch the sky as it curves and swells ... voluptuous, sultry in the naked heat, it seems to me to be the flesh of a woman.” Gee, why hasn’t it ever been like that for me?

As mercifully short as it is, by page 20 I had the distinct impression that the book was already too long. And lest I lose myself in a diatribe on the prose alone, there are some interesting technical errors that made me chuckle when I suppose I should have been breaking into a cold sweat. With a heroic abandon last displayed by Walter Mitty, Mendelsohn has a lost and thirsty Amelia tapping a “dial” and crashing a trainer when the “engine” stalls. A real pilot might call those complicated-looking thingies “instruments,” and would probably know that it’s the airplane’s wing that stalls, not its engine (of which a Lockheed Electra always has two). If you really are Amelia Earhart, Mendelsohn, it’s no wonder you got lost.

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