Originally published in 1997, author Susan Butler’s East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart gets a new edition from De Capo Press to coincide with the release of Mira Nair’s film, Amelia, starring Hilary Swank, Richard Gere, and Ewan McGregor. Butler’s extensively researched and engagingly detailed book is one of two upon which the biographical film is based.
It’s easy to see why this particular book, among so many other works about Earhart’s life and legendary accomplishments, became source material for Hollywood. It’s because, in many cases, Butler went to original sources for her information. Beginning with Earhart’s own books, books about her, and the Earhart Papers that are housed in the Schlesinger Library, Butler then found and interviewed an original member of the Ninety-Nines (the 1930s women’s flying organization to which Earhart, and Butler’s own mother, belonged) and then Earhart’s favorite cousin, Katch Challiss. It was through this familial connection that Butler obtained personal diaries, family histories and intimate letters of Amelia Earhart’s close relatives.
Butler also interviewed luminaries such as Gore Vidal, whose father had a relationship with Earhart when he was a child, as well as unearthing long lost publications and articles featuring Earhart, locating an unpublished biography written while she was alive and discovering a woman who had corresponded with navigator, Fred Noonan, on his and Earhart’s flights around the world. It’s a wealth of information of which the public, for the most part, had been previously unaware, and Butler doesn’t miss a detail.
It’s easy to see from Butler’s in-depth examination of her life, as well, why Amelia Earhart has remained such an object of fascination, even all these years after her mysterious disappearance. Though that tragic event is surely the most striking in its impact, it was Earhart the woman, and the myriad facets of her magnetic personality, that led her to her eventual fate, that propelled her to her enduring place in public consciousness.
East to the Dawn illustrates the fact that Amelia Earhart became the embodiment of adventurous spirit because she was such a formidable force. She is inspirational, especially to women, not because she was an icon, but because she was inspired. She was, and is, a perfect example of the American Dream. Earhart’s story starts, like most American Dreams, in humble beginnings. Butler follows Earhart’s forebears from England, to Pennsylvania and then to Kansas where Amelia was born, surrounded by a large and close-knit extended family.
During her youth, the immediate family moved around regularly, with Amelia living in and around St. Paul, Chicago, and Philadelphia, and one imagines this may be how she developed her love of travel and, later, flight. At age 20, she had not yet flown, but had already become enamored of the “full sized birds that slid on the hard packed snow and rose into the air with an extra roar …” She even stood in the path of an oncoming stunt plane, later remarking that she believed “that little red airplane said something to me as it swished by.”
Clearly she was hooked. But before — as well as after — flying became her consuming passion, she was passionately involved in many other pursuits. Did you know she enrolled in nursing amidst the flu epidemic and then learned basic auto mechanics in order to become an ambulance driver? How about that she attended medical school?
Of course, once she learned to fly in the early ’20s aviation dominates everything else, both for Earhart and for Butler’s narrative. However, woven into the exhilarating descriptions of flight and planes, details about engines and Trans-Atlantic crossings, and documentation of rising fame and fortunes, Butler reveals aspects of Earhart’s life that are never mentioned in the school books or museum installations. She briefly attended Columbia and Harvard, and she tried, and failed, to pursue a degree in engineering from MIT. She charmed her way into (as well as out of) many things as she worked to advance and promote herself. She worked in a mental hospital, tutored in English, and became a social worker.
She also regularly lied about her background, her work experience and her age. She wrote articles extolling the great beauty in flight and her hope to see more women becoming pilots. She became the first female officer of the National Aeronautic Association and established herself as a celebrity, an expert, and a pioneering feminist. She endorsed Lucky Strike cigarettes, despite not being a smoker, and lost a job with McCall’s because of it. She married publisher George Putnam, who, notably, put aside his other professional interests to become Earhart’s manager and agent. She became close friends with Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, and had a lengthy affair with Gene Vidal. She also, perhaps most notably, taught at Purdue University in the department for the study of careers for woman, which was essentially created around her desire to break barriers for women that she herself had come up against.
East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart relates all of these intriguing and lesser known facts with a very straightforward and determined voice, one that seems very much appropriately aligned with its subject. Butler further authenticates Earhart’s tale with liberal use of entire passages and direct quotes from the letters and interviews she used found in her research. The last chapter, on the events that followed that fateful final flight, naturally, is a bit more speculative than the earlier text because it discusses theories that were suggested at the time of Earhart’s disappearance and some possibilities that still persist to this day. What’s most persistent though, is the spirit of adventure that Amelia Earhart represents. That will never disappear.