Several years ago, Laurie Notaro set her TiVo to record “Real Housewives of New Jersey.” In a stroke of luck, the DVR malfunctioned and instead recorded a BBC show about female pilots who had vanished trying to fly over the Atlantic. The largely untold story struck the veteran Valley journalist and “New York Times” bestselling author as something worth digging into, and this week, after years of research and recreating the true stories of three of these unsung aviatrixes and their race to cross the Atlantic, Notaro’s historical novel “Crossing the Horizon” hits shelves from Simon & Schuster imprint Gallery Books.
Notaro will read from and sign copies of the book, show a short film, and introduce a guest speaker from the Phoenix chapter of women pilots organization the 99s at Changing Hands Bookstore in Phoenix at 7 p.m. Thursday, October 6 (more info here). We recently caught up with the author to discuss “Crossing the Horizon.”
What inspired you to write an historical novel?
We’re taught that Amelia Earhart was the only one to fly over, much like Charles Lindbergh. That’s not true. In 1927, 27 people died going over, from both ways. So it was amazing to me that there were women – men, you kind of expect that – but women, in that time, when they had just gotten the right to vote, were suiting up and heading across the ocean as pilots… I was just stunned. And when you hit upon a story like that, that is true and engrossing and compelling and no one has told it for almost 90 years, that’s insane. That’s like going to Goodwill and finding a Faberge egg, you know what I mean?
How would you describe the three women at the center of this story?
All three of these women shared many common traits – they had strong personalities, they had a lot of courage… they wanted to show that women could do the same thing as men. Because Lindbergh was a hero, and he’d only flown in May, whereas Ruth Elder takes off in October. That’s only five months for you to actually get your pilot’s license, find investors to buy you a plane, chart a course, and then actually do it. And she did. That’s Ruth Elder. Ruth Elder was a little girl from Addison, Alabama. Dirt poor. Her family had like, a million kids. And the only way they got a car was because their horse died. She wanted better things for herself. She was whip-smart, and she also knew how to play the Southern Belle. She was not lacking that as one of her charms. She would enter beauty contests to win money to pay for flying lessons.
Elsie Mackay [pictured left] was one of the richest women in England… she was one of the first women, if not the first woman, in Great Britain to get her air pilot’s license. She sat on the air advisory board in Britain. She was the first and only woman who ever sat on that board, at the time. So she was very well respected, and she was a very good pilot. Very self-assured, and she was also very determined. She was really something of an iconoclast, because everyone was against it. Her father didn’t want her to fly, and society in general didn’t want her to fly. She was best friends with Princess Mary, King George’s daughter. So she was supposed to be a debutante and marry the right person, and she didn’t do those things. And she’s been excommunicated from her family…. But she made terrific strides for women in aviation, especially in Europe.
Mabel [Boll] was perhaps my favorite character. Mabel was also very determined, and she was a bit of a streamroller. And she wasn’t going to let anyone or anything get in her way. And that is what I have to respect about her. She may not have been the most politically correct person in 1927, but she had something about her personality, that when she set her sights on something, she’d go out and do it. She married the richest coffee king in Columbia. And he died… and she ended up getting all of his estate, which was millions and millions and millions of dollars, and so she had enough money to really push her way forward, and no one ever questioned her. She was called “the queen of diamonds” because she often wore a million dollars’ worth of jewels at one time.
What do you hope people take away from “Crossing the Horizon”?
What I’d like them to know is that in 1927, there were women out there breaking barriers. It wasn’t just one. There were many of them… believe me, Amelia Earhart is not the villain in this book. She’s simply the last girl on the scene, and she’s the one who makes it across. But these women paved the way for her, and they have just been lost to history… What I’ve learned is that, typically, whatever hero you have in front of you, there’s a million people in back of that person that have just been gathering dust, and who really helped that person – strategically or inadvertently – helped them get to that place.
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