As Big as the Sky
Chandra Prasad's Amelia Earhart is bigger, grander, and more dramatic
Wednesday, November 04, 2009
By Donald Brown
She disappeared forever, seemingly, after a transmission on July 2, 1937. But Amelia Earhart is back. With the aviatrix currently on the big screen in Mira Nair's Amelia, and with new conjectures about her disappearance surfacing, these are favorable conditions for Chandra Prasad's Breathe the Sky, a fictional rendering of major events in Earhart's life and career.
The dramatic focus of the novel, indeed half its length, is a tour de force presentation of her fatal attempt to circle the globe. Having learned Earhart made a visit to New Haven shortly before that flight, Prasad gave the famed pilot a cameo in her earlier novel On Borrowed Wings, set at Yale, where Earhart speaks in Woolsey Hall. Prasad "continued to read about her out of personal curiosity," soon "had a miniature Earhart library" next to her desk, and planned to "write about [Earhart] on a larger scale."
Prasad initially set out to write a novel balancing Earhart's presence with fictional women of the period influenced by Earhart, but found, in writing, that Earhart's story was "simply bigger, grander, and more dramatic." And, as Prasad notes, "Earhart tends to experience a marked surge in popularity every decade or so. It has been this way ever since she disappeared."
So the challenge became how to make her own distinct version of Earhart's story, "an ode to Amelia."
In focusing on Earhart, Breathe the Sky brings us into her consciousness, shaping the relationships in the book — particularly with husband George Putnam, and with Fred Noonan, her navigator on the final flight — through Earhart's point of view. And yet there are nice novelistic touches outside Earhart's perspective, such as views of the heroine as seen by the Putnams — George, his first wife Dorothy, their son David — when she stays at their grand home in Rye, N.Y. And late in the book there's a memorable glimpse of Noonan's final hours. Indeed, Prasad invests Noonan with a certain stalwart pathos. He is the person closest to Earhart in her bid to circle the globe, but seems never completely simpatico with his demanding boss. He is also the one person to share her uncertain fate.
To give us Earhart, Prasad must also give us the rigors of aviation at the time, but without bogging her narrative in too much technical detail. She keeps everything rolling along, much as Earhart herself seemed to do. In Prasad's hands, Earhart is neither a daredevil nor a stickler for caution. She operates on instinct, on talent, and on a belief in herself and in her equipment. Aviation and Earhart's love for it dominate the book.
At times, we might almost say flying becomes a metaphor for a woman's effort to set herself apart from the reigning expectations facing women at the time. Or we might try to see Earhart as, to use a potent phrase the narrator lets fall when estimating what captured the public's attention, "an entire nation's raw potential poured into female form." But whenever we might be tempted to read Earhart as a symbol, Prasad brings us back to the logistical problems facing her heroine — whether flight paths, fueling problems, or the many projects her husband G. P. uses her fame to promote.
We find that living at risk, by courage and skill, is a heroic calling, but also an exhausting one, taking its toll on relationships, and even on Earhart's ability to see herself, on the ground, as anything other than the sum total of her fame and her flights. Only in the air is she herself.
The novel provides a gritty, unglamorized, or as Prasad says, "resolutely unsentimental" account of a unique and determined woman who succeeded, though not without misgivings and set-backs, on an unprecedented scale in a dangerous and exciting field.
Novels are, for Prasad, "daring, creative ventures ... meant to take readers to places they didn't expect to go." Breathe the Sky takes us into the cramped space of that Lockheed Electra, and then into a do-or-die situation on the last leg of that journey, trying to reach tiny Howland Island. It's a trip you'll be glad to have made with her.
Donald Brown is a regular contributor to the New Haven Review.
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