The Heart of Flight
A Review of Susan Butler’s East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart
Susan Butler was originally a freelance writer for The New York Times and Barron’s. Her interest in journalism dates back to her college years at Bennington where she was the editor of Bennington’s newspaper. Butler recently published My Dear Mr. Stalin in 2006. She now lives in Lake Wales, Florida.
BY ASHLEY PARK
Amelia Earhart: the first woman pilot to fly at an altitude of 14,000 feet, the sixteenth woman licensed in aviation, the best woman pilot in the United States. Known around the world as an accomplished flier, Amelia Earhart “[had become] one of those early mythical heroes of the sky whom people came to see at air meets and dreamed of emulating.”1 Amelia Earhart, America’s icon, impressed and changed the American women of the 1930s. Through Susan Butler’s research of Earhart’s unreleased letters and interviews with Earhart’s living relatives and close friends, Butler uncovers Amelia Earhart’s life story in her first biography, East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart.
Born on July 24, 1897 in Atchison, Kansas, Amelia Earhart lived a blissful childhood, spending most of her time with her loving grandparents. As a child, Earhart “was [so] thin… [that] her friends sometimes called her Skinny—and growing up was always on the tall side for her age.”2 At school, Amelia was a good student, but she was steadfast. According to Headmistress Sarah Walton, “Amelia’s mind [was] brilliant, but she refuse[d] to do the plodding necessary to win honor prizes. She deduce[d] the correct answers to complex arithmetic problems, but hate[d] to put down the steps which she arrived at the results.” Her stubbornness caused Amelia to miss the arithmetic honors.3 However, because of her family’s economical struggles during the Great Depression, Earhart’s blissful childhood came to a halt. Her father, Edwin Earhart, a railroad lawyer, ran out of money because of decreasing work opportunities and became a heavy drinker. Amelia’s family moved to St. Paul where her father found a new employment. As she struggled to provide a stable life for her family, her mother suffered from exhaustion which temporarily prevented her leg from functioning. After her mother’s illness, Amelia Otis Earhart and her two daughters moved to Morgan Park District, where Amelia attended Hyde Park High School. After her senior year, Earhart went on to Bryn Mawr College, dropping out early to become a doctor. She enrolled in Columbia University. After spring semester, Amelia again dropped out of Columbia and moved to California to achieve her final goal—to be a woman pilot. By 1921, Earhart learned to fly and soon, she became one of the best lady pilots with Alyosia McLintic. Then, in December 15, 1921, Amelia Earhart passed the F.A.I pilot’s license as the sixteenth woman of achievement.
Amelia Earhart was now a famous woman pilot. Busy pursuing her goal, Amelia disregarded her fiancé, Sam Chapman, who waited patiently for her to give her career. However, Earhart could not give up her dream for marriage. Before she went back to New York for college, her parents finally divorced and Earhart was now “free to lead her own life.”4 In New York, Amelia was re-admitted to Columbia University for graduation but moved back to Boston to pursue her career again. There, she met Charles Lindbergh, Walter Lippmann, and other pilots who became Earhart’s friends. These men became Earhart’s friends, and had strong influences on Earhart. The “Friendship” flight—the first long distance dual flight—was a journey that circled among the Trepassey, Newfoundland, London, and finally to the states on a different moving vehicle-- the steamship “SS President Roosevelt.” Even though navigation was a challenge, Amelia mastered the landing. Her perfection was known throughout the flying industry, which prompted many offers for a co-pilot position from numerous airline companies—all of which she refused.
After the success of the “Friendship” flight, Amelia stated clearly that, “[Sam] should do whatever makes him happiest…I know what I want to do and I expect to do it, married or single.”5 Ameila finally broke off her engagement with Sam. After their separation, George Putnam, a married man, pursues Amelia for professional and personal reasons. Amelia, who enjoyed finishing things thoroughly, carefully, and calmly, decides to marry Putnam after his divorce with Dorothy. George Putnam “abdicated the ordinary male role and put up with the conditions she imposed.”6 However, during her marriage, Earhart had a secret affair with Gene Vidal, a married man. Gene, who was Earhart’s partner at TAT, became powerfully attracted to Amelia. Amelia and Gene had a lot of similarities that attracted each other; both were in “love with flying and wanted to be with people who…were in love with flying.”7 But their relationship did not get any further than attraction and ended without commotion. In November 1932, Earhart met Eleanor Roosevelt for the first time at a government conference, where they quickly became friends because of their striking similarities: having alcoholic fathers, thin, tall physique, and low physical self-esteem. Most importantly, Eleanor and Amelia both had the same “sense of moral purposes that had led them both into social work… [and] desire to open doors for women.”8 Then in 1934, as Amelia’s popularity continually increased and because of her renowned fame, Earhart began to design her own brand of dresses and hat.
During the 1930s, Earhart became the icon for American women: she was a well-rounded woman who attempted fashion designing, established a world record, and lectured at Purdue University. On top of it all, she was now planning for a single long distance flight around the world. In the thirties and forties, when men had the least confidence in women, Amelia Earhart. Her unwavering determination allowed her to do the improbable—to travel around the world, solo. Despite her plan to achieve her dream alone, Paul Mantz became Earhart’s partner and soon they “left off from Oakland [and departed at] Honolulu in 15 hours and 47 minutes.”9 However, Earhart and Mantz did not have a great relationship and unfortunately, Mantz was fired. Replacing Mantz, Fred Noonan became Earhart’s new partner and soon after, the two flew into the air. The flight was satisfactory until the telegram machine fell apart during a storm. By then, Earhart and Noonan were lost forever. No one knew where they had landed or where they had disappeared. The mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance remains a mystery today.
In her biography, Butler’s thesis is simply that Amelia Earhart was an appealing, courageous woman of the 1930s—“an American woman who achieved fame and fortune by virtue of her own natural talents.”10 Throughout this biography, Butler emphasizes Earhart’s numerous honorable achievements and how they changed the anti-feminist society of America. Yet the author constantly exaggerates Earhart’s achievements and shows too much personal sympathy toward Amelia Earhart, often disregarding her mistakes and flaws. The reason for her disappearance could have been Earhart herself—her own inexperience, miscalculation, or even macabre willingness to die an honorable death. Overall, Butler’s thesis was overly complimenting the aspects of Amelia Earhart.
Apparent throughout her writings such as East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart, Susan Butler loves and admires Amelia Earhart as an American idol. In the preface, Butler introduces that her mother was a pilot in the 1930s and had worked with Earhart in Ninety-Nines, a women’s flying organization of which Amelia was a member. This fact inspired her curiosity of Earhart during her childhood. But even though, Amelia Earhart was the perfect role model for women in the 1930s, she was not flawless. However, Butler exaggerates the love for Earhart and it is evident when Butler repeats similar phrases such as “Amelia…had already become one of those early mythical heroes of the sky… [and] she was one of those exotic beings whom popular songs commemorated”—reflecting her personal point of view.11 Instead of over sympathizing and emulating Earhart’s achievements, the author should address both the positive and negative aspects of her life equally.
In the East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart, Susan Butler does not use historiography to influence her writing. Butler relies solely on research to back her biography. She never criticizes Amelia Earhart. However, Butler follows some of the points of historiography—using selection of source materials and composition and evaluation to influence her writing. To support the information with true evidence, Butler adds letters, quotes, dairy excerpts, and other literary evidence for support. For example, Butler, in order to support the relationship between Sam Chapman and Amelia Earhart, adds an excerpt from one of Chapman’s letters: “Miss Amelia M. Earhart is all right. I have known her four years and she is a very dear friend of mind. She is a good scholar and is capable in any field that she may claim.”12 This personal letter from Samuel Chapman, Earhart’s former fiancé, proves that he knows Earhart very well. In addition, Butler adds evaluation to the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s death. At the end of the biography, Butler presumes Earhart’s death with a hypothesis of her own, even when the reason of Earhart’s death was not clearly proven. Also, Butler disregards the critical analysis of Amelia Earhart, sticking with her own view..
There were many book reviews complimenting Susan Butler’s biography but there were also constructive criticisms. Christel Loar from “Popmatters” compliments the biography by stating “East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart relates…facts with very straightforward and determined voice, one that seems very much appropriately aligned with its subject.”13 Loar praises the fact that Butler used passages and exact quotes from the letters and interviews she researched. Instead of criticizing Butler, Loar recognizes that Butler takes the chance to discuss the possible theories of Earhart’s disappearance, unlike other Earhart biographies. Like Loar, Linda Christmas from “Telegraph- United Kingdom” both compliments and criticizes Butler’s biography. Christmas criticizes Butler by stating that “the author minimizes Earhart’s part in its failure… [and that] Butler confidently says the fliers were off course, ran out of fuel and fell to the bottom of the sea.”14 However, Christmas also recognizes and compliments in the way “[Butler] avoid[ed] hagiography.”15 Overall, Loar and Christmas’s book reviews helped identify the strengths and weaknesses of Susan Butler’s biography.
Despite the compliments, Susan Butler’s first biography East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart was not quite flawless. The biography draws strength from Butler’s authentic evidence, gathered from interviews and personal letters. The information Butler gathered was informative and made Earhart’s life story remarkable. The information also provided real evidence on efforts made by Earhart as a pilot. However, the weakness of this biography lies in Butler’s strong biased perspective and weak interpretations. Clearly, the author favored Amelia Earhart and this is shown by her repetitive phrases, which undoubtedly show her personal admiration. For instance, Butler emphasizes that “there [were] challenge[s]…being the first woman [to fly across the Atlantic]… [and] dangers of flying across the Atlantic were…so great, the risks [were] so incomprehensible, [and] the act [was] so brave [to accomplish successfully].”16 Throughout this novel, Butler repeats similar phrases, like this previous phrase, when Earhart challenges world record and when she attempts her final around-the-world excursion, to acknowledge how Earhart fought through numerous adversities in order to obtain her aspiration. Furthermore, Butler’s perspective effected her interpretation of Earhart’s story and lead to a rather sympathetic analogy than amenable understanding. Therefore, it was not a flawless biography of Amelia Earhart’s life.
America in the 1930s was greatly influenced by Amelia Earhart.17 Without Amelia Earhart, the sexist culture of America would not have changed. As with the civil rights, America had many anti-feminist men, who did not approve of women in society. To the anti-feminist men, women were their housekeepers, lovers, and mothers to their kids, nothing more. But with the leadership of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony, women secured their right to vote. And with the influence of Amelia Earhart, women found their determination to overcome the anti-feminist society and found a place in society where they could actually take a stand. Moreover, the 1930s was the turning point of the society, a time for new ideas and new rules.
According to critical analysis, Amelia Earhart did not significantly affect the American 1930s, but she still remained an icon for all American women. Unlike other women, Earhart attempted many occupations and switched to many different universities, searching for a way to reach her true dream. She even attempted to be a doctor and applied to Columbia University. However, she fell in love with airplanes and overcame her challenges to become a successful woman pilot. In the thirties, women were treated poorly and were even considered useless. However, Earhart was significantly different from most American women during the thirties—she actually gave an effort and attempted challenging unlikely dreams. Also, “she didn’t divide the world up by sex, as most women did in the 1930s, treat[ing] women friends one way and men friends another.”18 By treating the people around her equally and fairly, and using her determination to reach her goals, Earhart served as a role model for other women and helped change the anti-feminist American society in the 1930s.
Amelia Earhart challenged herself and set a special example for American society. She was not the reclusive coward waiting for someone else to make the first step and was herself the pioneer, achieving the impossible. Her bravery and determination as a woman changed the men’s perspective of women and encouraged other women to have the same determination to try. Other women such as Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, attempted and tried to change society for the better; but these women had a weaker impact to the American society compared to Earhart. Anthony, Mott, and Stanton strove for individual freedom and rights, but Earhart represented the power and success of women. Even before Earhart became a pilot, she showed the qualities of a strong woman while practicing as a nurse. When “she was hit with a pneumococcal bacteria infection in her frontal antrum, where the pressure…builds up… [and] chronic pain result[ed]” Earhart endured the pain and went through the long and painful process of surgery and recovery.19 Because of her unwavering determination to progress and succeed and her renowned accomplishments, Amelia Earhart was the very image of an American woman—a woman of pure courage working hard to earn her place in the world.
1: Butler, Susan. East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart. Cambridge: Da Capo Books, 1997. 115.
Ashley Park is a junior at Irvine High. She hopes to major in fashion marketing in college. Currently, Ashley is part of three student groups: Power of Prayer, Amnesty International, and Students for Social Responsibility on campus.
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