Fascinated by flight

Tara Bradbury
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Woman with roots in Harbour Grace writes young-adult novel about girl’s desire to become a pilot like Amelia Earhart

The cover of “Amelia and Me” by Heather Stemp.

By Tara Bradbury

The Telegram

Heather Stemp’s new novel is one part genealogy, one part history and a little flight of fancy.

“Amelia and Me” started off as the Ontario-based writer’s way of capturing her family’s history.

Set in 1932, the book for young adults tells the story of Ginny Ross, a 12-year-old girl from Harbour Grace with an obsession for all things related to aviation.

Ginny desperately wants to be a pilot like Amelia Earhart, but faces a number of challenges, including her mother, who repeatedly tells her that “planes are for men.”

While the book is a work of historical fiction, the setting and characters are real: Ginny was her aunt.

“I was born in Toronto and raised in Port Credit, but my relatives returned to Newfoundland many times, and we always came with them, so I’ve spent a lot of time here,” explained Stemp, currently in the province. “My most memorable time was when I was 12 years old and spent the whole summer here. Ginny, in fact, was 12 years old in 1932 when Amelia made her flight. I used a lot of the memories from when I was 12 in Harbour Grace and, in a lot of cases, what I was thinking and feeling.”

The real Ginny died in 2001, and Stemp, a teacher, retired a year later.

The eldest of four children, she said she knew her family’s stories better than anyone, and felt if she didn’t write them down, they’d be lost forever.

As she researched Harbour Grace, she discovered connections with aviation.

“I discovered that Harbour Grace didn’t look like Harbour Grace had in 1932, because there was a fire in 1934 that essentially wiped out Water Street. I thought to myself, what a fascinating history,” Stemp said.

The research for the book was long and detailed, and included the provincial and national archives, the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, the Railway Coastal Museum in

St. John’s and interviews with pilots who had flown small planes, similar to the City of New York, a Lougheed Vega.

It was a lot of work, Kemp said, but she enjoyed it.

“I love history and I love old black-and-white photographs,” she said. “Those hours spent in the archives were pure enjoyment for me, and what a thrill to be looking at a negative and then to get a magnifying glass and have a relative’s face looking back at you. It’s so thrilling to recognize them.”

Any stories that didn’t come from Ginny came from other characters in the book, such as Jennie Mae Stevenson, Pat Cron and Llewellyn Crane: all real-life people who had been Ginny’s friends, whom Stemp interviewed.

Ginny’s father, Joseph Ross, owned a general store in Harbour Grace, and the novel opens in the early morning, when Ginny creeps downstairs into the store’s basement to slip away with her cousin, Pat, and best friend, Jennie Mae, to the airstrip to watch the City of New York take off.

At one point, Ginny writes a letter to Earhart, using her uncle’s return address on the envelope, to avoid her mother.

Dear Miss Earhart,

My name is Ginny Ross and I’m almost 13 years old. I live in Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, where most of the transatlantic flights take off. I don’t know if you answer letters, but I would be very grateful if you answered this one.

You see, I have a problem. I want to be a pilot like you but I don’t have anyone to teach me how to fly. My Uncle Harry is the airport supervisor and he knows a lot about mechanics. He has books on the subject that he loans me. With his supervision, I can clean the spark plugs, change the oil and replace the old air filter on my Aunt Rose’s car. So you can see I’m in training already.

My papa (grandfather) thinks I should follow my dream to be a pilot. My friends, Jennie Mae and Llewellyn, say if anyone can do it, it’s me. I think this proves there are people who know I’m serious about my dream and believe in me.

I know I have to finish school, so my goal for now is to make all the arrangements for my flying lessons. Then, when I graduate, everything will be in place for me to learn how to fly.

I really hope you can help me, Miss Earhart. I’ll work very hard and do everything you suggest.

Your admirer,

Ginny Ross

The book is complete with old photographs from Harbour Grace, which Stemp has labelled in first-person as Ginny: “This is Billy and me,” reads the caption under one photo of Ginny and her younger brother (Stemp’s father), standing in the snow by a fence. “I was feeling very sad on this particular day. My eyes are swollen from crying.”

Ginny grew up to marry an American soldier, and had various careers throughout her life, Stemp said. After the war, she and her husband spent time in France and Germany, where he was involved in reconstruction efforts.

Did Ginny ever get to fly a plane? Stemp’s not saying — at least not until she finishes the second novel in what she feels might end up being a three- or  five-book series.

“I can tell you that in the second book, there will be more detail about Ginny and aviation. It is historical fiction. The people are real and the facts about the flights are real,” said Stemp, who has an interest in aviation. “There is truth, but there’s fiction as well.”

As the books progress, so will Ginny’s maturity, Stemp said. While “Amelia and Me” is written through a 12-year-old’s eyes, the sequels will get into more controversial issues, romance and adult themes.

Stemp’s main interest is that her grandchildren will know where they came from. Apart from that, she hopes to share the history of Harbour Grace.

“I want youth to know what rich history can be found in Newfoundland,” she said. “Some of the smaller towns, especially those like Harbour Grace, that have been destroyed by fire or economics or other circumstances, have something to say.”

Published by Flanker Press, “Amelia and Me” will be officially launched with a reception at Hotel Harbour Grace today from 2-4 p.m.


Twitter: @tara_bradbury

Organizations: Canada Aviation and Space Museum, Railway Coastal Museum, Flanker Press

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Toronto, Port Credit New York Water Street Ottawa France Germany

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