Well, I’m never going to find better reading material on the flight than this, Eleanor thought.
Admittedly, she was very nervous to bring the book on the plane. While the library had facsimile copies of the book from the 1970s, Eleanor was a sucker for leather binding and had instead pulled the authentic 1932 edition of The Fun Of It off the shelf. Should anything happen to the book in transit, she was certain the fine would be hefty. Even the librarian, Eleanor recalled – did she glare at me?
But these concerns were shaken off quickly. The appeal of reading Amelia Earhart’s novel while literally soaring at 30,000 feet had a delicious appeal. She barely regarded the turbulence on the flight as she plowed through Earhart’s vivid account of early 20th century air travel.
A shred of fear had slipped into Eleanor’s mind as she began the book, nervous that stories about the unsafety of earlier airplanes might cause her to doubt the 747 she now flew in. But in a twist, Earhart’s book was poised, even in 1932, to allay fears of flight. With air travel growing in popularity, Earhart wasn’t so much selling the idea of flight with her book as normalizing it – and normalizing much more, along with it. Eleanor lost track of the number of female aviators Earhart listed off, who had proceeded her.
A simple writer, Earhart’s prose was conversational rather than instructive – the equivalent of an elderly relative relaying stories from their childhood. This was no book mandated by a publisher, to feed public fervor for Earhart’s fame. This was a celebrity, one still bemused by the recognition of her fame, advocating fiercely for her industry.
“I maintain my prophecy,” Earhart stated, towards her book’s conclusion, “that aviation, as we know it today, will be accepted as an everyday means of locomotion before we progress to stratosphere flying.”
Eleanor glanced up and around the cabin. Spot on, she thought.
Towards the center of the book, Eleanor found herself glazing over a few sections – lengthy descriptions of Earhart’s first flight, and subsequent training on different plane types. “Don’t go to sleep,” she caught herself. “It’s not boring.”
Sure enough, the descriptions of Earhart’s individual flight experiences weren’t always vivid, but they all retained a whip-crack pace that kept Eleanor moving forward. When every anecdote was short and punchy enough to sustain interest, there was no reason not to continue to the next one. Besides, the book was none-too-subtly educating Eleanor about the early days of heavier-than-air travel. The first gyrocoper (called an “autogyro” in this time) to land on the lawn of the White House, for instance, was not actually the first craft to land there – that would be Harry Atwood’s Burgess-Wright biplane, in 1911.
No sooner had this description ended than Earhart was onto discussing crashes, and their benefits. Or, rather, discussing crashes, and then sidebarring into media discussions of crashes.
“I might add that women are often penalized by publicity for every mishap,” Earhart cut in. “Everyone should realize there will be an inevitable increase in the number of casualties involving women. As more and more women enter into aviation, the number of accidents may be expected to keep pace.”
The plane shook slightly. Eleanor held her breath, but kept reading.
– – – – –
I wish I could replicate your in-flight reading.
Truuu but the book is the important part
Gotta go, I’m on shift rn
Gwen shut her phone. Eleanor had lent The Fun Of It to her, but not before letting her know about the first time she had read the book. Gwen couldn’t top that – an El Train might fly past, but never higher than a few dozen feet from the ground.
Nonetheless, she guarded the rare first edition in her lap and began the novel in transit.
The book began with Earhart’s childhood – “Growing Up Here And There,” the chapter was called – and included several divergent passages of context. A discussion of the young Amelia’s fascination and interest in sports was abruptly cut off with the line:
“Unfortunately I lived at a time when girls were still girls.”
Gwen had to sit back at that line. So blunt – and yet written in passive voice? The implication that Earhart, forever lauded as a female aviator but rarely as simply aviator, wrote from a time beyond when girls were expected to act as girls was fascinating. A challenge to the original reading audience, and a more complex line to explore in retrospect – in our own decidedly post-girls era.
This was only the beginning. Earhart launched from here into a multi-paragraph explanation of the differences between boys and girls athletics – which, Gwen would later realize, differed in no significant way from her descriptions of the mechanics of flight. The fragile materials of skirts, and how they hamper movement, was dropped into the book without additional comment.
“Tradition hampers just as much as clothing,” Earhart added. “From the period when girls were not supposed to be able to do anything comes a natural doubt whenever they attempt new or difficult activities.”
This methodical, almost scientific, approach to the constraints of her childhood continued for the remainder of the chapter – “She got her high school diploma in Hyde Park,” Gwen noted aloud – before finally, Earhart recounted her initial introduction to aviation.
And even then, the tangents continued: her first time seeing a solar eclipse (and the other time), her decision not to bob her hair (and the social stigma of doing so), the different types of pilot’s licenses (and who has them), the frequency of air sickness (and how best to ensure it occurs). Before Gwen could even register the altitude shift, Earhart was soaring through the different types of stunts and dips that planes could perform while in mid-air.
“It’s got a great flow,” Gwen began, muttering to herself. “Nice pacing, likeable voice, interesting…”
But Gwen didn’t complete her thought about what she found interesting – she had been sucked back into Earhart’s prose.
– – – – –
“It’s called The Fun Of It. By Amelia Earhart. Yes, the pilot.”
Dania paced the floor of her room, holding the mic on her earbuds to her mouth. As her mother continued to ask about the book, the novel itself lay on the desk, beside Dania’s open computer. Her curiosity, damnable millennial that she was, had repeatedly forced her into the Wikipedia articles for every group named in the book, which stood open in a line of tabs across her desktop. Juan de la Cierva. The Ninety-Nines. The 1929 “powder puff derby.” Louise Thadon. The Beech-Nut Company.
“Well, the last chapter is the transatlantic flight, so it’s, like, before she’s super famous, but she’s still pretty famous,” Dania explained. “She talks about signing autographs and stuff. It’s actually sort of weird, there’s this part where – okay, so she might actually be this wild feminist?”
The chapter Dania had just finished, entitled “Women And Aviation,” was the most engaging of the book so far. While rooted in a screed about the multiple systemic barriers that prevent women from becoming aviators, and breed distrust in those women who remain on the ground, the simplicity of the language never let on any frustration. Rather, in Earhart’s view, the injustice was merely another hurdle to clear, in the inevitable push for women to join the field.
“She talks for so long about all of these other female pilots, and how women are also in the plants building and designing planes, too. Like in Significant Figures, with NASA? But with planes. And she’s all pretty blasé about it – like, she sort of implies that female pilots are just normal, and are no different than men.”
Dania paused, while her mother replied.
“Well, yeah, that’s the point,” Dania answered. “It’s just really un-commented-on. But anyway.”
Dania sat back down in her chair, swinging her legs over the armrest.
“So there’s this feminist thread through the whole thing, which makes one section of it real weird,” Dania said. Picking up the book, and careful not to tear the 85-year-old pages, she traced for the passage she needed to quote. “It’s right after the first time she crosses the Atlantic, when she’s a passenger.”
Dania’s mother continued to talk as the pages turned. Doc Kimball and the weathermen, people sneaking dogs on planes, joining the staff of Cosmo as an “aviation editor.” Earhart was more of a Renaissance Woman then her reputation and famous disappearance implied.
“This is it,” Dania jumped in. “She’s talking about getting attention for being the first woman, and she says: ‘a disproportionate amount of attention was given to the woman member of the Friendship crew’ – the plane is called the Friendship – ‘at the expense of the men, who were really responsible for the flight. The credit belongs to them and to the flight’s backer as well as to the manufacturers of the plane and motors.'”
Dania waited for her mother to concur with the strangeness of Earhart’s ‘leaning out,’ but didn’t get the response she wanted.
“Even if it is true,” Dania replied, “it’s a weird way to phrase it. ‘At the expense of the men,’ indeed. I mean, the last chapter is all about the solo flight, the one people remember. So she gets to the feminist stuff later. I guess it’s just this one weird dip. I don’t know. The whole thing’s really interesting. Sort of all over the place, but good. You should read it.”
She listened as her mother asked another question – one that made Dania’s eyelids droop.
“No, mom, she wouldn’t have written about that flight, it hadn’t happened yet. And also, she’d be dead, so she couldn’t write about it.”
Special thanks to the Harold Washington Library Center and the Chicago Public Library for their access to a copy of The Fun Of It. The novel is currently out of print, but a digital copy of the text (8th reprint) can be downloaded HERE.
Image Credit: Harcourt Brace and Company, N.Y.