Saturday, November 13, 2010

Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean

Sarah Stewart Taylor & Ben Towle
Disney Hyperion Books, 2010, pp.80, $17.99
ISBN: 978-1-4231-1337-9
Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean represents the most recent title in a series of non-fiction graphic narratives produced by The Center for Cartoon Studies and published by Disney Hyperion Books. Written by Sarah Stewart and drawn by Ben Towle, the book celebrates Earhart's landmark flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1928.

Set in Trepassey, a small fishing village on the coast of Newfoundland, the story is told from the viewpoint of Grace, a young girl who serves as the narrator, and aspires to become a newspaper reporter at a time when men dominate the industry. Writing for a newspaper she self-publishes, Grace documents Earhart's struggle to become the first female passenger to cross the Atlantic in an airplane. When inclement weather and a run of bad luck conspire to prevent Earhart and her pilot, Bill Stultz, from leaving Trepassey, tensions mount. Faced with the distinct possibility that her competitors will complete the trip before her, Amelia races against the clock, and bravely confronts the perils that await her in her quest to make history. In the process of doing so she inspires Grace to pursue her own dreams in spite of the obstacles she faces as a female in a patriarchal society. Indeed, the story culminates with a moving scene in which an older Grace, who still dreams of becoming a reporter for a city newspaper, discovers that Earhart has disappeared while attempting to become the first woman to fly around the globe.

That it has taken me this long to review a graphic narrative is surprising, especially considering the frequency with which I read them for pleasure. I've read and enjoyed other titles in The Center for Cartoon Studies series, including a thoughtful and entertaining story about Harry Houdini by Jason Lutes and Nick Bertozzi. As such I approached this book, which focuses on a compelling figure whose mysterious death has always intrigued me, with considerable anticipation. Unfortunately, the book fell short of my expectations. Towle's artwork, which effectively pairs black and white drawings with turquoise backgrounds, is attractive and captures both the look and the feel of a seaside village in the early twentieth century. Moreover, his simple drawing style is endearing. The story, however, is less well conceived, and though it aims to explore a pivotal moment in Earhart's voyage--namely, the days and nights that precipitated her transatlantic flight and her subsequent rise to fame--the book seldom explores its subject in any degree of depth or detail. To be sure, there are touching moments that standout for their elegance, including one in which Earhart, having walked to the edge of a cliff, silently contemplates the hull of a wrecked ship, a recurring motif that serves to remind her (and readers) of the very real dangers that await her, while at the same time foreshadowing her death. Still, these scenes are not enough to make up for the book's shortcomings.

Given the decision to present Amelia Earhart's story in graphic format, one might expect the book to have accomplished something a traditional text could not. Unfortunately, this isn't the case, and while I would recommend other titles in "The Center for Cartoon Studies Presents" series, I was not particularly impressed with this one. That's not to say that Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean is without merit. As I suggested, it is visually attractive, and it will likely appeal to younger audiences interested in learning more about Earhart. Moreover, the story focuses on a strong female figure, and as such it offers adolescent girls a positive role model, a fact that Eileen Collins, the first female astronaut to pilot the Space Shuttle, acknowledges in the introduction she wrote for the book. Nevertheless, readers who are interested in learning more about this compelling figure might profit from reading a more traditional work of non-fiction.

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