By Alexander Wallace
She disappeared over the Pacific after taking off from Lae in Papua New Guinea, and from there was never seen again. She disappeared while trying to circumnavigate our planet. She was the first woman to fly solo over the Atlantic. A pioneer in flight and in women’s rights, the life of Amelia Earhart is the thread from which legends are woven. The only thing about her story that goes against that great act of weaving is the fact that she died so young.
Alternate history is an easy way to add to a legend, or to spin an entirely new one. It is natural, then, that the day came that alternate history rewrote her story. In this case, to our great service, the master of alternate history himself has decided to take this on. This is Harry Turtledove’s novella Or Even Eagle Flew, one where Earhart survives her circumnavigation and goes on to fight for another worthy cause: for the Allies against the Nazi menace terrorizing Europe.
It is a short book, only a novella. It can be read in a day, a sitting if you feel sufficiently dedicated. In this regard, it is a welcome break from sprawling epic series in the genre (as Turtledove himself has written multiple times). Its shortness makes it intimate; more than most published alternate history, this is a character piece. This is not about the machinations that take place in the halls of power; indeed, the broader history of World War II does not change at all. This is a story about one woman and her place in the world as she goes off to confront perhaps the greatest evil our species has ever known. You get to know Earhart as a woman with a strong sense of morality and a love of flight, one who knows that the constraints that society has foisted upon her.
You get to know her very well; this novella goes deeper into her psyche than any of the Night at the Museum movies do. By the time she lands in England ready to do what is right, she is older and wiser than most of her fellow pilots. She isn’t quite a mother, but most certainly on occasion the really experienced one of the bunch. She makes friends, some quite close, and loses several of them.
One of the strengths of this novella is how it handles the nature of war. There are combat scenes which are often quite short; fitting, given how quickly people can die in the sky. Amelia Earhart in our history was many things, but a soldier she was not; she has to grapple with the fact that she now has to take life. Likewise, she sees so many people who she had grown close to slowly are consumed by the fiery Moloch of the carnage ensnaring Europe. She is not unaffected by this, and you can sense her inner turmoil.
To his great credit, Turtledove manages the historical fact of the sexism that Earhart would undoubtedly have faced with dexterity. It never feels exploitative or done for shock value, nor does he sanitize how awful it could be; it all feels very believable for the time period. It also gives Earhart some of her best character moments as she dresses down men who dare underestimate her on the basis of sex.
Or Even Eagle Flew is something that the alternate history genre needs more of without question. As Liam Connell said, we need more alternate history about peasants, not kings. Earhart wasn’t quite a peasant, but she was no king (or queen). Despite her extraordinary achievements, she was a human being, like all of us, and this novella focuses on what this does to her as a human being. Grandeur and immense detail have their place, but so do so these short, intimate character pieces, and many authors would do well to follow Turtledove’s example here.