On a fairly regular basis a new search for either the remains of Amelia Earhart or the remains of her Lockheed Electra is launched with great expectation and excitement. This will surely be the search that unravels the mystery of her disappearance! And what a mystery it is. This summer marks the 75th anniversary of a mystery that continues to fascinate, confound, and seduce much of this country and, indeed, much of the developed world.
On July 2, 1937 Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan took off from Lae, New Guinea. They were never seen again. No real evidence of them or of her Lockheed Electra 10E has yet been found. While other famous people have disappeared without a trace, no disappearance seems to have had, or continues to have, such a grip on our spirits.
Now the grip has tightened once again.
A photograph taken several months after her disappearance contains the image of what may possibly be the landing gear of the Lockheed Electra off a remote South Pacific island. In July a team will go to that island hoping to not only find the remains of the plane but also the remains of Earhart and Noonan.
Such is the grip of Amelia's mystery, and so compelling is this new possibility, that even Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood give the upcoming search their encouragement. Secretary Clinton went on to say that Amelia "gave people hope and she inspired them to dream bigger and bolder."
I have long been among those fascinated by the personality of Amelia Earhart and her disappearance. So consuming was my own fascination that I explored the "what-ifs" of the disappearance by writing a novel called But This Is Different. In my novel Amelia's disappearance was carefully planned and skillfully orchestrated by Amelia and her equally famous lover, Margaret Mead. Two women in love, they simply wanted to disappear and spend their lives together. History tells us that their story didn't work out quite as planned. History tells us that Amelia Earhart disappeared in July 1937, and that Margaret Mead -- always in the public eye -- died in a New York hospital on November 15, 1978.
History does not tell us that Amelia spent 40 years waiting to keep the promise she had made to Margaret: "I will come if you need me." History doesn't tell us that many of Mead's visits to the South Pacific were constructed around brief and secret visits to that very small, almost invisible island on which Amelia lived and waited. And history certainly doesn't tell us that most of the wreckage of what was once the Lockheed Electra was hidden and eventually morphed into a boat looking like nothing ever designed for water. But This Is Different fills in those historical gaps and answers the fictional mandate of "what if?"
Recently, readers of But This Is Different have been asking me if I'm worried that the wreckage and remains will be found. "What will you do?" they ask. "What will happen to But This Is Different?" they worry.
When I wrote But This Is Different, I was not unaware of the possibility that wreckage and remains might someday be discovered. Did I worry about that while creating my novel? No. Such concerns would only have impeded the writing. What I did try to do, though, was create a story capable of folding into history without disturbing it. Isn't that the challenge of all historical fiction? History has happened. Weaving another possibility into it cannot change what was. It can, however, enlighten and explain.
If the object in the now-enhanced 1937 photograph proves to be part of Amelia's plane, it won't intrude on the narrative of But This Is Different. It will only indicate that not all the debris from the Lockheed was collected by the islanders at the instruction of their Pilipan (Mother Chief) Margaret Mead. And if the remains prove to be those of Earhart and Noonan, my story won't change, either. It will just mean that a woman capable of feeling passion and pain sufficient to stop the birds from singing and deep enough to cause the oceans to weep died before she could fulfill her dream of living the love that, at the time of her disappearance, had no name. And the story contained in But This Is Different will become, as it possibly already is, the dream narrative of a life imagined by two women who continue to captivate and guide. Such a discovery might also mean that the icon of the American Museum of Natural History, Margaret Mead, lived the rest of her life cherishing the memory of such love and such passion and such "we-almost-made-it" possibility.
The story of But This Is Different will stand the test of discovery. And I stand by my story.
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