Novel captures semi-historical flights of fancy

Joan Sullivan
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Amelia and Me
by Heather Stemp
Pennywell Press
$17.95; 212 pages

A few years ago, Harbour Grace hosted a celebration of Amelia Earhart’s 1932 cross-Atlantic flight, and I interviewed a women who had presented Earhart with a bouquet of flowers. Even to meet someone who had briefly encountered the gallant aviatrix was a thrill, so count me in the Earhart fan club.

Earhart’s fame was, in some ways, as carefully calibrated as her flights; she knew her attractiveness was important, not to her but to her goal of building training and employment for female pilots, and was aware of how she was photographed.

This takes nothing from her drive and her daring, traits she shared with her fellow pilots, whose resolution to fly, across the Atlantic and around the world, saw Newfoundland towns like Harbour Grace, Trepassey and Botwood become spokes on a glamourous, adventuresome hub.

Heather Stemp’s young adult novel, set in Harbour Grace 1931-1932, is all about the captivating, even transforming, passion for flying. Geography has made the town an ideal site for pioneering flights. But any lofty aspirations they might inspire in the local inhabitants are grounded in the reality of opportunity (where are the flight schools in outport Newfoundland?) and the Depression (where would the money come from to pay for that, anyway?).

Ginny Ross lives with her mother, Renie, younger brother Billy, and grandparents. Nana helps run the house and Papa manages the general store. (Her father is working in Toronto, though apparently not able to send much home.) Aunt Rose manages the Archibald Hotel (“All the pilots, plane owners, and mechanics stayed there when they were in Harbour Grace for a transatlantic crossing.”); Uncle Harry is the airfield supervisor.

Ginny is fascinated by the aircraft and the pilots that pass through Harbour Grace. Some (The City of New York) will set aviation records while others (Louis Reichers) will remain historical footnotes. But they are all part of a special, elite crew that Ginny longs to join.

“I don’t need to be tall, slim and beautiful. I’m brave, determined and smart!” Ginny tells herself, even as she is pretty sure her mother wishes it was the other way around. That Ginny was more feminine, and acted like other girls, like Pat Cron. But Ginny knows she has to be herself.

This causes trouble. She needs to sneak out of the house to see the takeoffs and landings. When she goes even further, entering a plane without permission, she is physically hurt and blamed for a subsequent mishap. But even being so briefly in a cockpit fuels her determination.

There are obstacles. Access to training, for one thing. Money to pay for that, for another. Getting to the point where she’s ready to even start is a third. Ginny’s mother wants her out of school and working full time, and it’s not just because she firmly believes that flying is for men, not women. The family is in tight financial straits and needs all the salary Ginny can bring in.

If Ginny’s relationship with her mother is tumultuous, her connection to her grandfather is full of love and support. But Papa is not feeling well, the dire economy is tightening its fists, and Ginny needs to make some dramatic choices. How much does she really want to fly? Enough to disobey her mother? Enough to leave her family?

The historical details, the architecture of the town, the daily cuisine (toast with blueberry jam, baked cod and winter vegetables), the currency in pounds, the encounter with a young union organizer named Smallwood on the passenger train, all make for a rich, solid background.

And Ginny makes a great protagonist, full of grit. She brings gumption and momentum to the narrative. That said, the story involves real people — besides, of course, Earhart and her team: Ginny and her family are relatives of Stemp’s, who was born Heather Ross in 1945. (Ginny’s friends were real people, too.) There is a small album of black and white family photographs included. There’s something odd about this fusion of the speculative and actual. For example, one of the photos shows Earhart “holding the thermos of soup I made.” But, at this point, the “I” could be either the fictional character or actual person — or is she meant to be both at the same time?    

That confusing factor aside, “Amelia and Me” makes for good reading, following an engaging young heroine as she tries to realize her dream on a wing and a prayer — and a plan.

 

Joan Sullivan is a St. John’s-based journalist and editor of The Newfoundland Quarterly. Her column returns Sept. 28.

Organizations: The Newfoundland Quarterly

Geographic location: Harbour Grace 1931-1932, Newfoundland, Atlantic Toronto New York

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