The Mystery Solved

By Elgen M. Long and Marie K. Long

Simon & Schuster. 320 pp. $25

You'd think that there would have been more than enough books written about Amelia Earhart over the years, but this particular one is about far more than an iconic woman coming to an untimely end. There's absolutely nothing lurid, fancy or speculative here--no dastardly cannibals or suspicious Japanese lurking furtively about, no conspiracies, no hidden plots. This is a step-by-step reconstruction of Earhart's last flight, written by a couple who've devoted their lives to flying.

Elgen and Marie Long are concerned with facts and nothing but the facts; their anti-glamour approach is so effective that by Page 70 the reader has to fling the book down for a while. Unless you're an utter old-time flying aficionado, the difference between 87 octane gas as opposed to 100, or the numerous frequencies used on early airplane radios, or the ins and outs of loops and dangling antennas, becomes too much to take. The authors express the hope, in their preface, that their account will be "easy to read," but the language around early flying is arid: "When a scene-setting or other verbal bridge was constructed to aid the flow of factual material," they write, "we took care not to inject poetic license into any matter of consequence. . . . Some of the language, as well as aviation and radio terms used in the 1930s, may be unfamiliar now."

For instance: "The remote control box for the receiver was placed on the eyebrow panel, just above the left windshield in front of the pilot. The radio direction-finder loop was put on the centerline on top of the plane, a few inches in front of the cockpit overhead hatch. The loop had to be turned crosswise before the overhead hatch was opened or the loop would hit the hatch. It was easy to turn the loop by hand from the inside or the outside if it was in the way. The trailing wire antenna was installed through the cabin floor aft of the transmitter." A little of this prose goes a long way, but after a while this nitpicking attention to detail begins to pick up its own narrative rhythm.

Earhart's would-be flight around the world in 1937 came just 10 years after Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic. The technology (watch for the cliches coming; I can't help it) we take for granted now wasn't there, or if it was, it was obscure and bewildering. Humans--just as they do now, of course--operated with bravery, imagination and audacity, within a larger, absolutely breathtaking capacity to screw up. To embark on a flying project was to invite mishap, and almost without fail mishap accepted the invitation.

The authors give us a short form of Earhart's early life and career, her romance with--and marriage to--G.P. Putnam II, scion of the publishing house. They laconically record her passage from regular citizen to "celebrity." They take us through Earhart's first round-the-world attempt, which ended abruptly after an aborted takeoff and on-the-ground crash, and go on to her next attempt. Having fired her mechanic, and with a different navigator this time, she takes off again, this time heading in a different direction, from Northern California to Florida, across the Atlantic to Africa, across India, then to Australia and up to New Guinea in preparation for a flight to Howland Island, and then Hawaii, and then home.

They--Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan--must have loved it. There must have been exquisite moments of boundless exhilaration, but the flight itself sounds like a nightmare of tedious detail. Someone carves his or her initials into a strut; the flight must be delayed to sand these initials off or the plane might fly apart. An attempt is made to load fuel through a chamois into the plane's tanks, but the gas won't go in because of contaminants. The man with the gas swears there are no contaminants; again, the flight is delayed. Radio technicians give Earhart long lectures on the use of the plane's radio; she seems to understand, but maybe she doesn't understand. Each day she and Noonan land at another airport, meet another set of officials, make small talk, eat dinner and turn in early in order to get up at dawn. Parts fail, and fail, and fail again.

At Lae, Noonan drinks too many Scotches, gets tangled up in his own mosquito net and makes an unseemly racket (it's me using the word "unseemly"; the authors just record the Scotches). But think of it. Lae, New Guinea, before World War II! Wouldn't you have a few Scotches? Earhart and Noonan were walking (flying) a tenuous line between the ancient "unknown" and feckless Western attempts at "civilization." They'd touched down at El Fashar, Khartoum, Massawa, Bandoeng; they'd searched up and down the West African coast for Dakar the way we'd search for a hotel at the end of a 14-hour drive to an unfamiliar city.

When Earhart and Noonan took off for Howland Island, their plane, the island and three ships in the vicinity were operating in five different time zones, some with a half-hour difference. People on the ground listened for messages from Earhart in Morse code, but she didn't know Morse code. Her direction-finder wouldn't work right. A ship's captain ordered that his vessel "make smoke" as an aid to Earhart to find her direction; the smoke lay sluggishly on the water, enshrouding the ship. Mishap got invited and came to stay.

According to the Longs, there weren't any skulking Japanese or hungry cannibals in the Earhart narrative--just people failing to meet up with each other, the way we might make a date for lunch and miss each other at the mall. That's what makes this dry account, in the end, so compelling and so sad.

Upcoming in Book World

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MYTHMAKER: The Life and Work of George Lucas, by John Baxter. Reviewed by Peter McCarthy.

DESIRE OF THE EVERLASTING HILLS: The World Before and After Jesus, by Thomas Cahill. Reviewed by Jim Naughton.

THE FABULOUS HISTORY OF THE DISMAL SWAMP COMPANY: A Study of George Washington's Times, by Charles Royster. Reviewed by Edwin M. Yoder Jr.

I'LL BE RIGHT BACK: Memories of TV's Greatest Talk Show, by Mike Douglas. Reviewed by Carolyn See.