Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Review: Crossing the Horizon by Laurie Notaro

Learning something new is always a pleasure. Learning something new while feeling a part of the action or a spectator standing in the thick of the action is even better. That is what Crossing the Horizon gave me. I knew there must have been women pilots other than Amelia Earhart, but I'd no idea how hotly contested the Atlantic Crossing was in Lindbergh's wake or that women then, as now, were inspired by Lindbergh's successful flight nonstop from America to Europe.

Mabel Boll was the wannabe of this trio of women wanting to be the first woman. She was flashy and a bit trashy and brassy as an old bell. Her pictures do not show her as a heavyweight and yet Mabel was adept at throwing her weight, and her dead husband's money, around to get what she wanted. What she wanted was to be flown, not to learn to fly. Come to that, Amelia Earhart didn't fly the plane on her successful flight across the Atlantic, though she could fly. She was a passenger, but not quite dead weight since she kept the pilots awake and on track. Amelia was the death of Mabel's dreams of being the Queen of the air by being the first woman to successfully make the crossing.

The Honorable Elsie Mackay, middle daughter of Lord and Lady Inchcape, was determined to go her own way. She served as a nurse during World War I, falling in love with one of the wounded soldiers, marrying him, and making her own way in his theatrical world as Poppy Wyndham. Laurie Notaro treated Elsie's divorce with the quiet dignity and reticence one would accept for one of England's peers. Elsie, having been disinherited by her father for her marriage to an actor, was welcomed gladly back into the fold where she made her own career in her father's luxury shipping business by decorating the suites.

Having flown aeroplanes during the war, Elsie refused to give up her love of flying even when she was flung out of the plane during a dangerous aerobatic inside loop when her safety harness broke. She made her way across to the wing and hung onto the stabilizer wires in the biplane until the pilot safely landed and prized her death grip from the wires. Both hands were cut to the bone, but Elsie was undaunted by her near death plunge and wanted to go back up again. It was that undaunted determination that set her on course for the race to be the first woman to fly across the pond from Europe to America, a more dangerous and difficult course. She planned and flew from England across Ireland and toward the Americas with copilot, Walter G. R. Hinchliffe, a World War I pilot who helped bring down flying Ace, Baron Von Richtofen, the Red Baron.

The third woman was also a pilot, little Ruth Elder, a girl from a dirt poor family in Alabama who married and divorced in short order, married again, and talked her husband into allowing her to return to the States while he remained in Panama and visited her every return trip. Ruth entered a local beauty pageant and won first place. The fifty dollars was not enough to buy a plane, but it was enough to pay for flying lessons. When she announced she would fly to Europe, reporters considered it a stunt. After all, the pretty little girl would, like Mabel Boll, be a passenger and probably could not fly, a rumor she dispelled in her best Southern Belle manner, taking a reporter on the acrobatic flight of his life.

Ruth and her co-pilot, George Halderman, designed bulky rubber wet suits to cover the eventuality of a water landing. Ruth wore hers when they had to ditch the American Girl after a brutal night battling the storms, ice, and a broken oil line. Blown hundreds of miles off course, Ruth and George landed next to a freighter and landed in Europe from the tip of Portugal instead of Paris as originally intended. They had crossed the Atlantic through the autumn storms, but made it to Paris by train. Their near miss landed Ruth in clover on her return to the United States and set her on course for a lucrative hundred-day lecture tour that netted Ruth and her family a hundred thousand dollars and set her feet on the path to Hollywood and the movies.

Frances Wilson Grayson and her copilot left the same time Ruth and George made their flight, but were forced down off the coast of Newfoundland by the same storm that battered the American Girl and forced Ruth and George off course. Frances Grayson was not the first or the last woman pilot to die in the attempt.

Notaro gives this period in history a special luster as she details the lives and dreams of Mabel Boll, Elsie Mackay, and Ruth Elder and does not ignore the men who flew with these amazing women. Though the men did not hold center stage, their accomplishments were given equal attention. Planes changed rapidly in the race to cross the Atlantic and set records. The quick succession of biplane to monoplane (one set of wings) and painted canvas to enclosed metal aircraft and ungainly seaplanes was detailed as well. Notaro's admitted fictional conversations and the cost of the daring race to illustrate aeroplanes were the next step in transportation made Crossing the Horizon more than a footnote in history. The vintage photos at the beginning of each chapter added faces to the lives and dreams of women who were determined to show the world their sacrifices were not second rate.

Crossing the Horizon is worth each of the 5 stars I awarded in spite of the glitchy ebook coding and heartily recommend Laurie Notaro's rendering of a time when adventures were denied no one willing to brave the elements in the emerging days of air travel. The three women are infuriating and brave and you will come to love, hate, and laugh at these all too human adventurers, warts and all.