In the fall of 1927, a 20-something pilot named Ruth Elder and Captain George Haldeman, her former flying instructor, took to the skies in American Girl, a small monoplane they were to navigate across the Atlantic Ocean, mimicking Charles Lindbergh’s famed flight from New York to Paris.
"Anniston Beauty Promises to Be First Woman to Fly Atlantic" the headlines had read, after Elder announced her intentions during her winner's speech at a beauty pageant earlier that year. She joined the ranks of nearly half a dozen other women who, inspired by Lindbergh's success, were eager to duplicate that fame for themselves and dreamed of flying the skies across the ocean.
For its part, history has remembered only one: Amelia Earhart, who, five years later, would be the first woman to successfully cross the Atlantic. And as the roaring '20s gave way to the Great Depression and World War II, those early aviatrixes — Elder among them — were quickly forgotten.
Crossing the Horizon, a new historical novel by Laurie Notaro, has given new life to these early aviatrixes. Set throughout the late 1920s, Crossing chronicles the journeys, decisions, and dreams of Elder, Mabel Boll, and Elsie Mackay — each of whom attempted to make that treacherous flight across the Atlantic Ocean.
As they will be to many of her readers, these three women were completely foreign to Notaro, who only discovered them through a TiVo mishap, when her previously scheduled Real Housewives of New Jersey taping was replaced by an episode of the series Vanishing, about Mackay and other early aviation advocates, many of whom died making the trip.
"I was stunned," Notaro says. "I couldn't believe I had never heard of these women before. But then when I went to investigate it, not only were there women before Earhart, there were men before Lindbergh! So then this whole story opened up."
That story became the novel, which hit bookshelves on Tuesday and will have its formal debut on Thursday, October 6, during a reading and book signing at Changing Hands in central Phoenix.
Though Notaro is known for memoirs rife with humor and anecdotes from her own life, Crossing the Horizon is hardly her first foray into fiction. (It's her third, to be exact.) It is, however, the first that has leaned heavily on the author's journalism background: She was a writer for several Valley publications, worked as a columnist for The Arizona Republic, and occasionally contributes to New Times.
In the wrong hands, this kind of story could easily read like a highly romanticized tall tale. Instead, Notaro expertly blends the reality of the race to cross the sea with dutifully imagined scenes, creating the kind of compelling novel that finds the reader at the end of 400-odd pages thinking excitedly, "Well, what happens next?" The embellished moments — which Notaro says make up only 10 percent of the book — never detract from the narrative. Rather, they push it forward and help weave three distinctly different, competing storylines together.
The five years Notaro spent sifting through old articles and tracking down distant relatives is apparent, as the characters — indeed, these very real women — read as the no-holds-barred, three-dimensional feminist champions they really were. Their accomplishments and attitudes are impressive enough on their own that at times it becomes impossible to remember that women's suffrage, one of the earliest steps toward equality, was only achieved in 1920 — seven short years before they took flight.
"The 1920s gave a window to women after they had gotten the right to vote," Notaro says, adding that the opportunities vanished almost as soon as they were available. "I think a lot of the real adventurous girls in the '20s just jumped on [that] time. [Then] that window closed, and the country was in dire straits for a long time, and then came the '50s and the '60s and it took 40 more, 50 more years before women were accepted or would even dare to try a lot of things like that."
History itself has played no small hand in significantly reducing women's accomplishments, often equating "first" with "only" in a way that allows early adopters like Boll, Elder, and Mackay to fade with the ink on old newspapers.
"Once the one [Amelia Earhart] went over, everybody else vanished, and that's how Ruth Elder became a secretary at Hughes aircraft in the '50s. She really had no other options at that point," Notaro says. "For men, I think there's a lot of room for heroes, but when you look at women there's got to be 'The First Woman.' [And] the thing is, these women were insanely famous. They were crazily famous before Amelia Earhart landed; they're on the front page every single day."
Notaro explains that that "first woman" appeal is actually part of the reason Crossing, which was completed by 2014, hasn't been released until now. Though the novel isn't exactly a political piece or an outright commentary, the significance of the heights — both literal and figurative — these women achieved is an apt metaphor for country that might be on the brink of electing its first female Commander-in-Chief.
"I'm glad that I'm bringing them around now, and I'm glad in many ways that the book wasn't published two or even three years ago," she says. "We have a woman running for president and I think that is the pinnacle of what women can achieve, and I think that mirrors the fact that in 1927 … trying to fly across the ocean was probably equal in terms of possibility, as being president [is today]. You have to be a strong person, you have to know yourself and know what you want and be courageous, and you can't be a flincher in the face of danger and adversity. These three women charged forth and nothing was going to stop them."
That determination is what she hopes resonates with readers most of all. The names Boll, Elder, and Mackay may not be in many history books, but their contributions — "they were working for the greater good instead of just themselves," she says — are far from forgotten. Both aviation and the women's movement have advanced far beyond this particular moment nearly 90 years ago, but that fire to do something more, and to do it better, has never gone out.
"I want people to be inspired about women who have been lost in history, and I want them to find some more," Notaro says. "I want people to know that there were these girls who were so brave and they went out there and they did it, come hell or high water. The recognition then was not lost on [society], but it was lost since then, and I figured that if there are these many women who made that effort that was so dangerous and amazing and awesome, there have got to be more women who tried other things, and I want to know what their stories are. I want to bring all these women back and I want them to be recognized for what they did."
The former Phoenician and New York Times best-selling author reads from and signs copies of her newest release, Crossing the Horizon, on Thursday, October 6, at Changing Hands, 300 West Camelback Road. Ticketed seating starts at 6:30 p.m.; the reading starts at 7 p.m. Advance tickets, which include a hardcover copy of Crossing and admission for two, are available for $26. Standing-room-only access to the reading is free; first-come, first-served. For tickets and other details, call 602-274-0067 or see www.changinghands.com. For more on Notaro and the novel, including tour dates nationwide, click www.crossingthehorizonbook.com.
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