Usually I don’t read biographies. I made an exception for Susan Butler’s East to the Dawn – the Life of Amelia Earhart because of, well, Amelia Earhart.
Amelia has always been a favorite of mine. I remember reading her chapter in a book by Robert S. Owen, They Flew to Fame, when I was nine or ten years old. It was the chapter just after Lindbergh’s which, in retrospect, seems fitting.
I confess I found the story of Amelia’s early life a little slow. That’s not Ms. Butler’s fault; a person’s life moves at its own pace, and even Amelia’s was no exception. There were still interesting things to be found in the first half of the book; I knew Amelia had been a social worker, but I had no idea at ten what a “social worker” was (except for the reference in a song from “West Side Story”) or the fact that in the mid-20s it was considered a cutting-edge career for women. I also didn’t know about the misfortunes of Amelia’s early family life, which I won’t go in to — read the book yourself.
I’m also not quite sure at what point I became enthralled with the book. It was probably when Ms. Butler pointed out that once Amelia made a success of herself as a social worker at the Denison House she could have had a brilliant career in that field, possibly living to a respected and accomplished old age. I simply hadn’t thought of that, and that point, the idea that an historical figure actually had choices, is not something that one sees brought out in biographies very often, because they are nearly always about people who are famous for doing something we already know about. For that reason choices made often seem the only ones possible; set in stone, or predestined, if you will. Ms. Butler avoids that, and her work is all the better for it.
From that point on the biography, already well done, became in my opinion inspired, and I began to consider what Ms. Butler had to put in to the writing.
I asked myself what caused the author to undertake the task of this book? Writing a fresh biography of a figure like Amelia Earhart, famous and well-known in her own time, the subject of many other biographies, is surely a daunting undertaking. Ms. Butler seems to have approached the task with a will. The level of effort employed is to be appreciated only by looking at the extensive notes and bibliography.
That level of effort involved many interviews with people still living who knew Amelia; a search through previously unpublished contemporary records, such as diaries, journals and letters, the mere ferreting out of which in itself had to be a monumental task; searching through records official and unofficial. Merely compiling the data alone is a task involving years of focus, discipline and purpose.
One might say such an effort has elements of obsession, but I see obsession as a negative quality, and there is nothing of the negative in the quality of Ms. Butler’s work. It is rather a work of love, undertaken in the spirit of a duty one sometimes finds oneself selected to bear, the duty of bringing witness to greatness.
No one can write words that put us inside the skin of another, and if they could that still might not be the greatest artistry. The great writer, in whatever form, through words creates a platform of the imagination which strikes in the mind and soul of the reader sparks of sympathy, empathy and compassion, a light in that darkness surrounding our souls that permits us a glimpse, a trembling glimpse across an awful void, to where the soul of another may be discerned.
So it is with this biography.
Quite aside from anything else, as an aviation enthusiast I found Ms. Butler’s anecdotes of the aviation community of the 1920s and 1930s to be fascinating and informative. Her account of Amelia’s last flight, particularly the last legs from Java and New Guinea to remote Howland Island, was poignant, the last line of that chapter heart-wrenching for anyone who has ever flown.
Need I add that I thoroughly recommend this work?