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finding amelia

4 november 2009

Ric Gillespie's Finding Amelia is a taut narrative exposition of the archival records concerning the disappearance of Amelia Earhart. A good solid discussion of the facts, and even meta-discussion of how we know them to be facts, for me always trumps more "emplotted" kinds of historical narratives.

That's not to say that Gillespie is drably "objective." He is associated with TIGHAR, the research group devoted, in part, to "testing the hypothesis that Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan landed, and eventually died, on Gardner Island, now Nikumaroro in the Republic of Kiribati." That hypothesis is controversial. it is not broached, for instance, in the recent biopic Amelia, and a cursory look at Wikipedia suggests that the "Gardner Island" hypothesis is still fairly hypothetical.

But as investigators of great unexplained mysteries go, TIGHAR seem to be a very sane and unevangelical bunch. Gillepsie interprets the myriad conflicting bits of evidence from July 1937 to point in the direction of Gardner Island, but he is pretty prosaic about his interpretation. And he doesn't dramatize the story of Earhart and Noonan on the island. When they disappear from the documentary record in Finding Amelia, that's it: they disappear. Since nobody's found them yet, disappeared is the best we can say.

Instead of presenting half-baked theories, Gillespie paints the much more fascinating picture of an expedition gone terribly wrong. By the summer of 1937, there was not much reason for Amelia Earhart to take off across broad stretches of ocean with little company or escort. Pan Am had already started to carry mail across the Pacific. Earhart's venture – a circumnavigation – was more an athletic feat than a trailblazing moment in aviation.

But it was a daring and dangerous feat, and it was supported on a shoestring. And when Earhart went down, various militaries, governments, corporations and agencies swung into sluggish and ineffectual action in an utterly failed attempt to locate her. To be fair, the information they had to go on was minimal. Gillespie criticizes the US Navy and Coast Guard for various droppings of the ball, but 70 years of Monday mornings later do not make for very precise quarterbacking. It was going to be very hard to find Amelia Earhart, given that she went down, basically, somewhere in the uninhabited Pacific. And unsurprisingly, nobody has yet found her.

The best material in Finding Amelia comes from the journal of a girl named Betty Klenck. In July 1937, she was listening to her father's shortwave radio set in Florida. Suddenly, Amelia Earhart was on the air, calling for help, saying inscrutable and terrified things. Betty wrote them in her journal, and many years later showed the journal to TIGHAR.

Betty's story is plausible: if she was listening on a certain "harmonic" [.pdf file!] of the wavelength that a downed Earhart would have been transmitting on, she might have heard the aviator, halfway around the world. Actually, I'm skeptical, as well I might be. Betty could have been listening to anything, and the almost random content of her journal reads like the kind of material that begs to have a pattern read into it by a determined interpreter. Yes, Amelia Earhart is mentioned in Betty's notes. But given that Earhart was very much in the news, almost anyone on Earth might have been talking about her over the radio.

But I will warn you: don't read the "Betty's Notebook" chapter of Finding Amelia in a dark house late at night when everyone else and the cats are asleep. I did, and I was creeped out of my wits. When you are 50 years old and you've seen as much pop culture and read as much genre fiction as I have, there is little left that can frighten you. But just the idea – that someone in desperate straits could broadcast a terrible cry for help that would be heard only by one young woman in a faraway suburb – is among the most terrifying pieces of prose I've seen. And it's all the more terrifying for Gillespie's restrained, matter-of-fact treatment, that has no designs at all to terrify.

Gillepsie, Ric. Finding Amelia: The true story of the Earhart disappearance. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2006.