This is the first trip in seven years where she is going to be the only one to remember everything she saw, everything she did. There won’t be anyone to remind her of the smell of fish and freshly cut grass in Harbour Grace, the rain that pooled on the plaque with Amelia’s name on it, Pat’s bologna sandwiches, the salmon burgers at Anna’s, the lobster she couldn’t eat. This trip is hers, only hers, and the weight of it feels terrifying.
I couldn’t decide if I wanted my epigraph for this post to highlight the ease and freedom of flying or the weight of being earthbound. I went with the latter (as you can tell!) because I’m not sure that Grace, the protagonist of Letters to Amelia, really takes off. I don’t mean that in the sense that she isn’t believable or appealing as a character, because she is both of those things. I mean that I think the novel is equivocal about the possibility of soaring, of leaving the ground. Earthly things hold you back, or tie you down, keeping you in the life you have. You can’t just leave it all behind, and though this is a novel that conveys plenty of the fretfulness of that quotidian reality, it also suggests, or so I thought, that being anchored or tethered is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, Amelia Earhart, with whom Grace becomes obsessed, is not a straightforward symbol of escape or liberation: sure, she broke barriers and flew away, but eventually she also, tragically and mysteriously, never came back.
I didn’t know much about Earhart going in to Letters to Amelia and I found it fascinating learning more about her life. Possibly she is a bit too pat or obvious a choice to represent women’s struggles to be seen in full: not to be reduced to an exception, or a first, to experience but not be defined by relationships. Grace is struggling to figure out who she herself is; it makes sense that she finds courage and inspiration in Earhart’s example. “Amelia is so much more than her relationship with Gene,” she reflects near the end, after a whole novel spent reading the letters that recorded that relationship and sorting through her own broken-off relationship with her boyfriend Jamie: “So much more than her disappearance.” When she thinks this, she is standing next to Earhart’s red Lockheed Vega at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. It looks so light and fragile! I have serious fear of flying, so it was a leap of both faith and imagination to participate vicariously in Earhart’s joy in flight and Grace’s pleasure in looking out airplane windows, in her turn, to see the world as Earhart saw it.
I liked a lot about Letters to Amelia, especially Grace’s discoveries about Earhart’s life (including its Canadian connections) and Grace’s trip to Newfoundland, a nearby place where—for reasons partly to do with inertia and partly to do with my dislike of both driving and flying—I have never been. A bit perversely, perhaps, given its title, my least favorite parts of the novel were the letters. The disclaimers at the beginning tell us that the letters in the novel written “by” Earhart are “entirely fictional.” Given that, I wondered why they were mostly so dull. They were realistic—but they didn’t have to be, did they? They had a lot of (what I assume are) actual details about Earhart’s life, but I got very little sense of her personality from them:
I’m sorry we got cut off. I don’t know what happened there. You were asking about the Friendship. Everyone made such a big deal about it, but I really just sat there like a sack of potatoes. The view was lovely, but I didn’t get to fly at all . . . Bill and Slim despised me afterward for all the accolades I got for their work. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t flown the plane, that they had . . .
I just got your letter and tore it open on the front steps. Okay, okay, we don’t have to go up to Trepassey to go trout-fishing (it is a bit rural) but what about Harbour Grace? It’s in Newfoundland, too, and it’s really quite charming. It’s right on the ocean, and the hotel there has some of the best tomato soup I’ve ever eaten.
There are nice bits in them, like the description of a scarf as the “exact color” of the fields “ready to be harvested” when seen from the air—”goldish green-brown.” Overall the letters are hardly transporting, though, and that bothered me because Grace (who is tasked with cataloguing them for the library where she works) comes to feels so strongly about them: I thought I should be able to as well. The other epistolary aspect of the novel is Grace’s letters to Earhart. This works well—in theory, anyway—as a device to connect the two women and to highlight the ways in which Grace starts looking to Earhart for things—answers, support, a model for her life—that she is struggling to get from her friends and family. In the end I wasn’t convinced that it worked that well in practice, though: the letters felt a bit gimmicky, and I thought the novel would have worked just as well without them, though of course then it would have needed a new title. 🙂
I accepted a review copy of Letters to Amelia from Book*hug Press. I’m glad they thought of me for it, because I did like it a lot. It turns out, however, that it felt surprisingly inhibiting knowing that someone was waiting and watching for me to write something up here. (I got a couple of follow-up emails.) I think that’s because I’ve always thought about blogging as not exactly reviewing. Maybe it’s a distinction without a difference.