When a publisher's representative asked me if I was interested in reviewing a new biography of Amelia Earhart I rolled my eyes and gritted my teeth a little. She gets so much press, and I'm constantly expected to revere her as a role model, despite the fact that her self-aggrandizing, poorly planned stunt flying eventually got her killed. My own mother refuses to understand that do not find it endearing when she calls me "Amelia." I look a little warily even at the record setting flights by Louis Bleriot and Charles Lindbergh but forgive them as necessary proof-of-concept achievements in the evolution of aviation. I grant no such dispensation to Ms. Earhart. There were a few words in the publisher's blurb, words like "reckless" and "lacked basic navigation skills" that told me this wasn't going to be an "Our Hero, Amelia" book so I asked to take a look.
The biography is Amelia Earhart: The Turbulent Life of an American Icon by Kathleen C. Winters and is published by Palgrave Macmillan. It's a well-researched, fair account of documented aspects of Amelia Earhart's life. It neither glorifies nor vilifies Earhart. Winters gives background information on the time, bases for comparison, footnoted facts, and quotations from people who worked with Earhart, and for the most part leaves the reader to identify patterns, speculate, and draw conclusions.
Winters was herself a record-setting glider pilot, but I don't know how much powered flight experience she had. In one passage she describes airframe icing as a familiar hazard to Earhart, referring to an earlier incident of carburettor icing. The two are completely different hazards, and it seems odd to link them. It's possible that Earhart's description of the first situation as "water in the engine" was more accurate, as carburettor icing both chokes the air intake as it forms and causes sputtering and a temporary further loss of power as it melts. I would have liked more information on contemporary knowledge of aviation hazards and techniques, especially more details on the instrumentation, navigation techniques and ground-based navigation facilities of the time, but Winter's choice to concentrate on the woman rather than the flights is not a flaw in her work.
Winters is careful to document her sources, not to restate the legend, and not to take people's word for what they said or wrote. For example Earhart wrote in a letter that the cost to learn to fly would be about $1000, and Winters researched contemporary flight training to determine that $250 to $500 was more typical. Earhart kept poor records, so Winters crosschecked her training claims with flights recorded in her flight instructors' logbooks.
Winters tells Earhart's story in an easy-to-follow linear fashion, and the balance of documentary evidence to narrative is good for this type of work, but it's not riveting, I suppose exactly because she is telling the whole story and not simply summarizing Earhart's dropping out of multiple schools and endeavours, and trying all manner of ways to raise the money she needed to keep flying.
I would recommend this title for both fans and detractors of Earhart, and for those interested in either aviation history or the history of the feminist movement. It is not excessively technical, and certainly requires no previous aviation knowledge. It has few details that would interest people primarily interested in Earhart's disappearance, unless they care to look at the evidence that she was poor on details like checking the fuel level during her preflight inspection, did not know Morse code nor how to operate the direction finding radio navigation equipment, was a poor navigator, did not plan ahead for how she would coordinate with ships to find the destination she never reached, and probably jettisoned some of her survival gear to save weight.
I did find some things to admire about Earhart. For example she tried to organize students to oust an incompetent teacher who held a position through nepotism, and worked to disband secret societies at her school. She really did work to parlay her achievements into not only money for herself, but for real opportunities for women.
"Women will gain economic justice by proving themselves in all lines of endeavour, not by having laws passed for them."
I think my favourite parts of the book are those where her path intersects with other aviatrices of her era: Jean Batten, Laura Ingalls, Edna Gardner Whyte, Louise Thaden, Blanche Noyes, Jackie Cochran, Mary Heath, Mary Bailey and other women whose aviation achievements are largely forgotten. I hate that Earhart, through the skill of her husband and publicist George Palmer Putnam, and because of her disappearance, is the one remembered. It's not so much that she is remembered is that it leaves people with the idea that she was the only aviatrix of her time. There were hundreds, and many of them lived long productive lives.
Ms. Winters wrote a previous biography on Anne Lindbergh and I would look forward to more from her on the history of women in aviation, but unfortunately she died of a brain hemorrhage shortly before the book was published. Oh and Kathleen Winters was born in the same city where Amelia Earhart first became interested in aviation--Toronto!