In Crossing the Horizon, Laurie Notaro reaches back almost ninety years to bring to life three of the women who competed with Amelia Earhart to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. In a strange coincidence, Earhart is in the news this week, with new evidence that indicates she may have died as a castaway on a Pacific Island. There were several women who sought that glory, including a princess, Notaro settles on three of them, Elsie Mackay, Mabel Boll, and Ruth Elder. They are good choices, all of them strong, vital women who challenged themselves and the strictures that denied women full participation in society.
Mackay was a privileged woman of British society, her father elevated to the peerage for his contributions to the United Kingdom. Boll was a wealthy widow whose brash and wild behavior was infamous on both sides of the Atlantic. Elder was a Southern girl from the wrong side of the tracks, a beauty contest winner whose pluck and winning personality earned her flying lessons. They were very different in their origins, personalities and in their fate, but they were united in their desire to be the first woman to cross the Atlantic. Mackay because she loved to fly and knew it could be done, Boll because she wanted the glory, and Elder because she, too, loved to fly and because she rejected the idea that women could not do it.
Both Mackay and Elder were pilots and intended to fly. Boll had no interest in learning to fly, like Earhart, she planned to go as a passenger. Since many people died in these attempts, that they did not pilot that planes did not make them less courageous, but it did make them dead weight on a flight where every pound increased the need for fuel while reducing the space to carry it.
I thought the subject was interesting and so were the women. I found myself admiring Elsie Mackay and Ruth Elder quite a bit. Mabel was quite volatile and several shades of ridiculous. I think in the end, Notaro felt a mix of pity and contempt for her and it comes through in the writing. When describing Peggy Hopkins as “a bit of a whore” in the author’s voice, not Mabel’s, she also wrote she was not that different from Mabel. I don’t like that sort of gendered judgment in the first place, but I also think that was unfair to Mabel who comes across as a charmless Mrs. Howell with all the malice of Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? There’s no nobility in her and no recognition that there had to be more to her desire to cross the Atlantic than getting her picture taken. She spent far too much energy and money for it to be simply that.
I would have liked the book better if Mabel did not seem so slapstickridiculous and if that is how she really was, then even more reason to pity her. Elsie Mackay was a wonderful woman and who knows, she might have beat Amelia Earhart in the end, if she had not been rushed to fly because they only had a tiny window at the airport. Perhaps if her father had been supportive of her dreams, she could have had the luxury of waiting for better weather. Ruth Elder, I think, was the happiest of the three. Her dreams were smaller to begin with, just learning to fly, but when offered the chance to dream bigger, she took it. When comparing her flight to Earhart’s, she wins on accomplishment and courage, though she did not win the title.
Clearly Across the Horizon succeeds as a story as it made me think a lot about these women and how they were treated, how they struggled and how they triumphed. They all triumphed if you define victory as seeking your dreams however far across the horizon they may take you.
Laurie Notaro web site: Idiot Girls
Crossing the Horizon will be released on October 4th. I received an e-galley from the publisher through NetGalley.