Jane Mendelsohn Essay - Critical Essays

Mendelsohn, Jane


Jane Mendelsohn I Was Amelia Earhart

Born in 1965, Mendelsohn is an American novelist and poet.

I Was Amelia Earhart (1996) is Mendelsohn's idea of what might have happened to famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, after their disappearance in July of 1937. Mendelsohn traces the pair's last day before their doomed transatlantic flight, and then picks up where the facts leave off, drawing a fantasy of what might have happened if Earhart's Lockheed Electra had managed to land on a deserted island when the pilot and her navigator lost their way. Critics see I Was Amelia Earhart as a story about freedom, escape, and transformation. Mendelsohn began her career as a poet, and reviewers find a lyrical quality to her writing. Most critics also discuss the blending of reality and fantasy in the novel, finding the result dreamlike. Some reviewers, however, are uncomfortable with Mendelsohn's blurring of the lines between reality and fiction, finding inconsistencies between Mendelsohn's characterization of Earhart and the real woman. Much of the credit for the book's popular success is attributed to national radio personality Don Imus, whose enthusiastic on-air praise after reading it prompted a sellout of the first 30,000 copies and a subsequent second printing of 250,000 more.


Publishers Weekly (review date 18 March 1996)

SOURCE: A review of I Was Amelia Earhart, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 243, No. 12, March 18, 1996, pp. 57-8.

[In the following review, the critic praises Mendelsohn's first novel and calls her a writer to watch.]

[In I Was Amelia Earhart,] past and present, fact and fiction, first-person and third blend into a life of the celebrated aviatrix—both before and after her famed disappearance in 1937, at age 39—that unfolds with the surreal precision of a dream and that marks first novelist Mendelsohn as a writer to watch. "The sky is flesh," begins the first of the scores of discrete vignettes and reflections that make up the narrative, an apt start to a story drenched in sensuality and the pursuit of it. The Earhart limned here is materialistic, glory-seeking, sexually hungry, outrageously self-absorbed and utterly charismatic. Telling her tale with ruthless honesty in both her own voice and that of the self she sees "from far away … ghostly, aerial," she speaks of her days as America's sweetheart, as the wife of publisher G. P. Putnam. Diverting from the historical record, she also speaks of the years after she and her navigator, Frederick J. Noonan, "a drunk," crashland on a South Sea island that they name "Heaven, as a kind of joke," but that becomes a decent approximation as the years slip by and the castaways discover happiness in nature and in each other's arms. When rescue seems eminent, Earhart and Noonan take to the air one last time, and crash one last time, perhaps into eternity but in any case into an existence defined not by control but by "abandonment"—a message in keeping with the story's theme but in fact an ironic one for a novel as calculatedly lovely and moving as this one.

Molly E. Rauch (review date 22 April 1996)

SOURCE: "Of Time and the River," in Nation, April 22, 1996, pp. 35-6.

[In the following excerpt, Rauch criticizes the way Mendelsohn alternates between the first and third person narrative in I Was Amelia Earhart.]

The mystery of Amelia Earhart's disappearance is the subject of Jane Mendelsohn's first novel. Whether Earhart lived or died is of secondary importance to Mendelsohn, who basks in the dreamy, terrifying magic of a plane roaring through the sky, then falling a mile to the sea. She basks as well in the imagination and despair of the woman—famous heroine, detached pilot—within the plane.

But she doesn't solve the mystery of Earhart's death. On a miraculous desert island, animals gather on the beach and communicate with Noonan, Earhart's navigator. Planes appear and disappear on the horizon; planes circle overhead; planes could rescue them; Amelia's downed Electra glints on the beach. There is solitude. There is a passionate love affair born of animosity. Then there is another flight, another crash, another desert island.

Is any of it real? Ambiguity is alluring: It highlights the impossibility of ever really knowing what happened, and makes the loss of Amelia and Noonan intensely sad. It also illustrates the expansiveness of fiction, and its limitations.

The narrative alternates between first and third person, which is disconcerting and ineffective, though explained: "Sometimes my thoughts are clearly mine, I hear them speak to me, in my own voice. Other times I see myself from far away, and my thoughts are ghostly, aerial, in the third person." But all this breaks down when, in the third person, we hear the inner workings of Noonan's consciousness, as if Mendelsohn doesn't know what she's doing with the narrator. And while there are some provocative sentences that could only come from a mind devoted to flying, like "The flight around the world contains within it everything inside me, all the life and all the death," some are repeated too often.

Mendelsohn's repetition, her confusing narrative and her melding of fantasy and reality make us feel as though we are witnessing someone else's dream: It's a little bit thrilling and a little bit boring.

Michiko Kakutani (review date 26 April 1996)

SOURCE: "Earhart as Brave, Careless, Marooned and in Love," in The New York Times, April 26, 1996, p. C31.

[In the following review, Kakutani asserts that Mendelsohn manages to make her version of the fate of Amelia Earhart oddly convincing, but criticizes her "phony lyricism."]

In the last few years, there has been a lot of speculation about what might have happened to Amelia Earhart, the famous flygirl whose plane mysteriously disappeared over the Pacific Ocean in July 1937. In Lost Star: The Search for Amelia Earhart (1994), the aviation industry journalist Randall Brink suggested that Earhart was on a spying mission for the United States Government, and that she was shot or forced down by the Japanese when her plane wandered into restricted airspace. He further suggested that the Roosevelt Administration helped orchestrate a cover-up of her story, and that she might have even returned to America after the war and assumed a new identity.

Other biographers have repeated the rumor that the American Government faked Earhart's disappearance in order to conduct an elaborate reconnaissance of Japanese-held territories—under the guise of a search for her body.

In her lyrical first novel, I Was Amelia Earhart, Jane Mendelsohn avoids taking advantage of such melodramatic possibilities: there are no glimpses in these pages of a fictional Earhart playing Mata Hari, or hiding out in New Jersey under the witness protection program. Instead, Ms. Mendelsohn has chosen to use the bare-boned outlines of the aviator's life as an armature for a poetic meditation on freedom and love and flight. Although Ms. Mendelsohn acknowledges her reliance on several source books—including Doris L. Rich's Amelia Earhart: A Biography and Earhart's own writings—she does not try to pass her story off as history, but rather imaginatively transfigures her material.

The resulting novel, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez's General in His Labyrinth or Larry McMurtry's Anything for Billy, invokes the spirit of a mythic personage, while standing on its own as a powerfully...

(The entire section is 892 words.)

Deirdre Donahue (review date 2 May 1996)

SOURCE: "Earhart Is Good for Anyone Needing to Escape," in USA Today, May 2, 1996, p. 4.

[In the following review, Donahue states that Mendelsohn's I Was Amelia Earhart is a lyrical story about escape, but points out that for those interested in what truly happened to Earhart it may seem insubstantial.]

The romance inherent in the early days of aviation has always escaped this reader: the tiny, fragile planes, the danger of crashing, the historical figures like aviators Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart in their leather jackets.

And yet Jane Mendelsohn's slim tale [I Was Amelia Earhart] swept me away, after something of a slow start....

(The entire section is 528 words.)

Merle Rubin (review date 8 May 1996)

SOURCE: "A Refuge from Politics, as Well as a Refuge for the Imagination," in The Christian Science Monitor, May 8, 1996, p. 15.

[In the following excerpt, Rubin asserts that escape is at the center of Mendelsohn's I Was Amelia Earhart.]

Jane Mendelsohn's first novel, I Was Amelia Earhart, could be summed up as a paean to the ultimate escape. Taking as her starting point what is known of the mysterious disappearance of aviatrix Amelia Earhart on her uncompleted final round-the-world flight, Mendelsohn has imagined not only the fate that might have befallen Earhart and her hapless navigator, Fred Noonan, but also the thoughts, memories, emotions, and longings...

(The entire section is 217 words.)

Francis Spufford (review date 17 June 1996)

SOURCE: "Airheart," in New Republic, Vol. 214, No. 25, June 17, 1996, pp. 38-41.

[In the following review, Spufford discusses how Mendelsohn fuses the individual and the legend of Amelia Earhart in I Was Amelia Earhart.]

To a novelist, the real people of the past are coalesced masses of characteristics learnable from the work of biographers or historians; inert, yet available to be woken. But animating a celebrity, and a comparatively recent celebrity, is inevitably a double process. You enter not only the person, but also the envelope of their fame; their mind, and then their persona, a thing determined very variously in collaboration with the world, concerted between...

(The entire section is 2814 words.)

Susan Heeger (review date 3 July 1996)

SOURCE: "Two 'What If' Stories of a Famous Flier," in Los Angeles Times, July 3, 1996, p. E5.

[In the following excerpt, Heeger asserts that Mendelsohn's I Was Amelia Earhart is "a brief, brilliant study in redemption, a meditation on love and loneliness that steers far away from mawkishness."]

Good news, Amelia Earhart fans. This summer your elusive hero flies again in two recently published novels that can be knocked off in a couple of beach days. And I do recommend the beach. Both are largely set on desert islands, the kind where palm trees sway and the only beverage comes in coconuts. Both are first novels that suggest that Amelia—who vanished in 1937 on a...

(The entire section is 386 words.)

Mary Rourke (review date 18 July 1996)

SOURCE: "Taking Wing," in Los Angeles Times, July 18, 1996, p. E5.

[In the following review, Rourke discusses the evolution of Mendelsohn's I Was Amelia Earhart.]

You can tell you're in someone else's fantasy just by reading the title, I Was Amelia Earhart. You might even wonder if the author, Jane Mendelsohn, still answers to her real name.

Such odd concerns have only helped attract more readers to her brief, poetic novel. Within weeks of the book's … publication, there were paperback and movie deals, a rushed second printing and high visibility on the bestseller lists.

"I don't feel like I was ever Amelia Earhart. But once...

(The entire section is 1058 words.)

Katherine Whittamore (review date 18 September 1996)

SOURCE: A review of I Was Amelia Earhart, in Salon (online publication), September 18, 1996.

[In the following review, Whittamore asserts that Mendelsohn's book "brings Amelia Earhart to life, more than any straight biography ever could.]

"Hubris and liquor" made Amelia Earhart crash, according to Jane Mendelsohn, her literary channeler in I Was Amelia Earhart. "The more he (her navigator, Fred Noonan) drank, the more reckless she became, the more he drank." If you don't mind riding on thermals of speculation without a glider of fact, you'll love this novel, which purports to tell the story of Earhart and Noonan after their plane goes down. If you do...

(The entire section is 546 words.)

Further Reading

Reilly, Patrick M. "Imus to the Rescue: Knopf Acknowledges the Power of Talk." The Wall Street Journal (9 May 1996): B10.

Discusses the rise in popularity of I Was Amelia Earhart after its discovery by radio talk show host Don Imus.

(The entire section is 39 words.)