Breathe the Sky: A Novel Inspired by the Life of Amelia Earhart by Chandra Prasad

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Breathe the Sky: A Novel Inspired by the Life of Amelia Earhart by Chandra Prasad

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Setting aside the shortcomings of novels inspired by the life of... Breathe the Sky presents an entertaining, if entirely fictional, account of Amelia Earhart's journey towards her last epic flight, and what happened during those last few months.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 206 Date: October 2009
Publisher: Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing
ISBN: 978-1932279399

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Prasad's first novel On Borrowed Wings followed a young girl entering the male-dominated arena of Yale in the 1930s. Her heroine took inspiration from the likes of Amelia Earhart (who has a walk-on part in the book), women who were finding their way in the world on their own terms and refusing to let their womanhood get in the way of it.

In this second novel, the author returns more directly to Earhart who is clearly something of a personal heroine. Breathe the Sky is subtitled (or disclaimered?) as A Novel, Inspired by the Life of… This is a genre which is always difficult to evaluate. It evades the rigour required to write a new and full autobiography of the subject, whilst at the same time avoiding the need to come up with a new storyline and new characters from your own invention for a truly fictional creation. To that extent, such books always feel to me like something of a cop-out.

Having enjoyed Prasad's earlier offering, however, I couldn't simply pass this one by.

The focus for the story is the final fatal round the world flight. It starts with the first abortive take-off and ends in the lonely waters of the Pacific Ocean. From the introductory trundle down the runway, we're taken back to Amelia's former life (i.e. before she became an aviatrix) but only insofar as it is necessary to understand her personality and how she got into flying in the first place. More importantly, we're taken back to her early years of flying and the building of the personal relationships that carry her forward through her flying years.

Crucial among these is her relationship with George Putnam. Originally her manager, later her lover, husband, but genetically unsuited to what she needed as her confidence grew: not a manager, an assistant. GP took Amelia on to further his own interests; he had no idea just how far she would outstrip him. The real surprise is that, for everything she spent her life doing, he seems (in the story at least) to have utterly failed to see her as a truly free spirit.

Ah. Men!

To be honest, though, these are the areas where 'novels inspired' leave if not a definite dissatisfaction, certainly a curiosity. How much of this is real, how much deduction, how much sheer make-believe. A biography would quote its sources and the reader could take a view of the level of veracity; the novel leaves everything open to question. Does this matter? I think it does, because every written word contributes to the myth. All dead heroines transmute into myth eventually. I'm of the school that likes the myth to be rooted firmly in the real.

Once we're in the air and we're inside Amelia's head – and most especially once we're into the final flight, clearly imagination and extrapolation take over. The knowing that this must be necessarily so, makes it more acceptable somehow.

Setting aside questions of accuracy and taking the whole as a novel, a work of fiction, is no easy task, but to the extent that it's possible how does it stand up?

Perfectly well. The structure is well-judged, focussing on the epic flight, with everything else feeding into how and why that went the way it did. Not being personally familiar with the 'real' person, the character of Amelia rings true enough for a woman doing what she did. Strong-minded, self-willed, and prone to doubts and despairs. Determination, rather than self-belief seems to have been what propelled her. Together with a sheer bloody-minded refusal to let man or mother nature get in the way.

Her backers and boyfriends, confidantes and mechanics, are all really bit-players but they too are painted in all-too-human colours. The only character I question is her doomed navigator, Fred Noonan. He comes off badly in this version of events, portrayed as a drunk and ultimately a coward. Whilst the stresses he endured flying for Pan Am's early China Clipper flights are well noted in the official record, and shortly before teaming up with Earhart he was involved in a car accident, evidently his fault, and quite possibly attributable to driving under the influence, there seems little to support the much more reprobate portrayal Prasad has opted for.

She does at least credit him as being a competent navigator, even an inspired one, relying on local knowledge over and above the official charts, but she down-plays his personal attributes to the extreme – presumably to further highlight the heroine. The shame of that is: it is unnecessary.

Equally, one imagines that Amelia had her ear well and truly to the aeronautical grapevine, she'd want the best in the business, and wouldn't put her life in the hands of someone she did not trust absolutely. If Noonan had issues, she would have known.

It serves admirable dramatic narrative effect, however, giving Amelia a chance to strut her stuff in the exotic bars and under the mosquito nets.

Stylistically simple, the book unfolds in a font near to type-script echoing the diaries Amelia kept, and the news-reports constructed from them. A balance of action, thought and dialogue keeps the pace moving…and allows it to stagnate when frustration hits our protagonists.

Chapter headings are overlaid on the chart of that part of the journey destined to be incomplete. We all know how it ends.

In a succinct 200 pages, Prasad delivers an adventure story which, despite us knowing the outcome, manages to be intriguing enough to hold the attention.


Further reading suggestion: If you enjoy Prasad’s style On Borrowed Wings comes recommended; if its the flying that gets you, check out Flygirl by Sherri L Smith. You might also appreciate the autobiography of a man who took flight to a whole new place.

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