CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 4. . . .September 27, 2013
Heather Stemp's debut novel is based upon the girlhood experiences of her aunt, Ginny Ross of Harbour Grace, NL. Heather's dad, Billy Ross, was Ginny's younger brother. Authors who write novels based on their ancestors' lives are engaged in labours of love, but sometimes they are unsuccessful in transforming factual matter into a compelling story. Amelia and Me, however, is appealing because of the historical and regional setting (Great Depression in Newfoundland), the photos of some of the principal characters and locations, and the colourful cast of characters, including the iconic aviator, Amelia Earhart.
Amelia and Me will interest girls and women, Newfoundlanders and aviation history buffs. Stemp's research included interviews with some of Ginny's girlhood friends, like Pat Cron, Jennie Mae Stevenson Alley, and Llewellyn Crane, who appear as characters. Although Ginny Ross is dead now, Stemp, when younger, visited her and absorbed her stories.
Harbour Grace airstrip was a popular location for aviators setting out on Atlantic flights in the 1930s. Consequently, Ginny, at 12, was fascinated by aircraft and dreamed of piloting a plane. The novel opens with Ginny, Jenny Mae and Pat sneaking off to the airfield in the pre-dawn hours, to watch the take-off of The City of New York, an airplane owned by a Mr. Mears. Ginny cannot resist the temptation to crawl into the cockpit and fantasize about flying, but she injures her leg when trying to get out of the plane undiscovered. To everyone's dismay, the plane crashes on take-off. Although the owner and pilot escape with their lives, Mr. Mears wonders if Ginny fiddled with the controls and caused the crash. Ginny apologizes her way out of this scrape.
Truthful but awkward and hapless, Ginny often arouses her mother's ire. Her father is in Toronto looking for work. Her friend and ally is "Papa", her paternal grandfather, Joseph Ross, a grocer. Ginny also gets support and encouragement from Uncle Harry who runs the airstrip and is an aviation buff, and Aunt Rose who runs the Archibald Hotel.
After reading about Amelia Earhart in her friend Pat's scrapbook, Ginny decides to become a pilot. She writes to Earhart for advice and persuades Uncle Harry to teach her the basics of aviation. Mother-daughter conflict is intensified by a traumatic family event, with the result that Ginny goes on a journey, both actual and psychological, toward greater maturity. She runs away to the United States to seek Earhart's help in training as a pilot. The chapters which comprise her trip to Boston and New York City include colourful travel details and personalities, but frustrate readers impatient for her meeting with the great Earhart.
Earhart appears twice in the novel; first when Ginny shows up at the Rye, New York home Earhart shares with her husband, George Putnam, and again when Earhart comes to Harbour Grace to take off on her 1932 solo transatlantic flight. She convinces Ginny's mother that aviation is for women as well as men, and she tells Ginny: "I want you to become a pilot and help me inspire other young women to do the same."
Adult readers will probably know that Earhart and her co-pilot disappeared while flying over the central Pacific Ocean in 1937. Some theorists claimed that she'd been spying for the U.S. government and was shot down and/or captured by the Japanese. In 1988, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) began to investigate her fate. On expeditions to Gardner Island (Nikumaroro), searchers found bits of evidence, including an aluminum panel from an airplane, a piece of Plexiglas, a zipper pull from a flight suit, and a heel from a shoe like those Amelia usually wore. In 2013, on a sonar mapping expedition just off the coast of Nikumaroro, TIGHAR found an image suggesting the remains of an aircraft. Stemp does not flash forward to Amelia's disappearance, though she foreshadows it when a woman who was watching Earhart take off, says, "We may be the last to see her alive."
In spite of Earhart's enthusiastic recruitment of women aviatrixes, piloting airplanes remains a male-dominated field in the 21st century. (A Google search of "numbers of women pilots" indicates that there are about 4,000 women pilots worldwide, mostly in the United States. Women make up only 5% of members of the Airline Pilots' Association, representing pilots at major and regional carriers in the U.S. and Canada, and also make up only 5% of the pilots in the U.S. Air Force.) Why are the numbers so small? Perhaps because pilots' gruelling schedules are hard on domestic life and because most commercial pilots receive their training in the military.
At the end of Amelia and Me, Ginny's plans to take flying lessons are temporarily on hold. Perhaps Ginny became one of the women who flew Lancaster bombers from North American aircraft factories to England during World War II. Readers will have to wait for the sequel to find out. But maybe Mr. Mears was realistic when he told her that "the odds were against" her becoming a pilot. I wanted someone in the novel to suggest to Ginny, and to other 12-year-olds, that if one dream doesn't work out, another may. I would have also liked a stronger suggestion that, while non-traditional occupations for women can be exciting, traditional jobs are also worthy. Will young readers realize that Ginny's mother, sewing "for the ladies in St. John's who can afford new clothes", is as admirable and courageous as Earhart is?
Ruth Latta hopes that her latest novel, The Songcatcher and Me (Ottawa, Baico, 2013) will appeal both to young adults and to mature readers who remember the 1950s.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.