Amelia in Life – “East to the Dawn” by Susan Butler
Granted, I’m certainly no expert, but I would have to think that Susan Butler’s “East to the Dawn – The Life of Amelia Earhart” would have to be among the most complete biographies of the legend ever written.
This marvelously detailed – and obviously exhaustively researched – biography charts the life of the noted feminist/aviator in such exquisite detail, I feel like I don’t have to read anything else about Ms. Earhart ever again. It’s all in this book.
Though her death remains perhaps forever one of the world’s great mysteries, Amelia Earhart lived her life in the open. Plucky, intelligent, motivated, and whip-smart, she was a woman who came from humble beginnings and wound up setting aviation records, serving on the boards of prestigious organizations, and hobnobbing with celebrities. President Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were among her friends. A feminist before the word was even invented, Amelia rocked the world with her style and brains, and laid the groundwork for female accomplishments in many fields.
“East to the Dawn” is packed with so much information about Amelia and the world around her, sometimes it gets a tad weighted down by it’s own stronghold of information. There’s a great deal of discussion about Amelia’s family, starting at her grandparents and trickling down into Amelia and her siblings, and it gets to be a tad much. Though it’s certainly fascinating to hear about all the other women flyers who were making names for themselves around the same time, sometimes it seems like the list of them goes on for pages.
On the other hand, recalling the many accidents and crashes these early pilots (male and female alike) went through help showcase how dangerous flying was in it’s infancy. Basically, you had a 50/50 shot of making it back.
However, I’m guessing that a thorough biography was Ms. Butler’s goal – and she wins.
Lots of details about the woman behind the legend are noted, too. For example, though a slender woman, Amelia disliked her “fat ankles” which is why she was nearly always photographed in pants, which she helped pioneer as a woman’s fashion. The details of her friendship/affair with Gene Vidal (father of Gore Vidal) is discussed, along with a note that Gene and Amelia’s husband, George, were actually friends the entire time. Did you know she wore men’s underwear while flying, as they were more comfortable than the silk underwear favored by women? I didn’t either!
Amelia Earhart’s last flight gets quite a bit of ink, as expected. The book ends where the story ends – at least, the story that can be documented and proven. We might never know what happened to Amelia, her navigator Fred Noonan, and her plane after they vanished somewhere over the Pacific, but “East to the Dawn” doesn’t waste pages on all the different theories swirling around. (Though a little bit is given to shoot down the theory that Amelia and Fred were captured by the Japanese to give American soldiers a reason to go search Japanese military bases, which has been disproven.) Instead, “East to the Dawn” ends rather suddenly and on a quick mention of the other early pilots who died attempting great feats of flight. There are also a few mentions of female pilots who have made commemorative flights around the world following Amelia’s own course, in tribute.
For a well-written and complete biography of Amelia Earhart, this is your book.
(I picked this book up after stumbling into the last twenty minutes of the movie “Amelia” on HBO. “East to the Dawn” is actually the biography that inspired the Hilary Swank/Richard Gere/Ewan McGregor film. Though the film was a little cheesy-seeming and screamed “Oscar-bait,” I think Hilary Swank was a perfect choice for the title role. )