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Flights of imagination

Fifty-nine years ago this month, Amelia Earhart disappeared somewhere over the Pacific with her navigator, Fred Noonan, and her twin-engine Lockheed Electra. The fate of the aircraft and its occupants has remained a mystery ever since. Now Amelia Earhart has reappeared _ twice _ in two first novels written by women.

Jane Mendelsohn in New York City and Alison Anderson in Mill Valley, Calif., both spent months imagining what could have happened to Earhart after her disappearance on July 2, 1937. Neither was aware of the other's work. Then like scientists on opposite ends of the globe who toil independently for months only to discover cures for a disease within weeks of each other, they both published books about the famous aviator _ one month apart.

Their novels have some eerie parallels. Both authors have chosen to tell Earhart's story by alternating between first- and third-person narrations. Both have presented Earhart as a strong yet unhappy heroine who finds greater happiness away from fame than she did in the spotlight. Both have imagined that Earhart and Noonan, marooned on an island, fall in love. Even the two islands where Earhart and Noonan play out their destinies are nearly indistinguishable. But there is at least one important difference in these two versions of Earhart's fate: Mendelsohn has imagined Amelia Earhart died. Anderson has imagined that she survived.

Mendelsohn's tale, I Was Amelia Earhart (Knopf, $18) was published first, in April. Receiving a gushy endorsement by New York radio personality Don Imus (whose wife fell in love with the book), the slim volume immediately soared onto the New York Times best-seller list. It has been there ever since. This week it is at No. 11.

Anderson's book, Hidden Latitudes (Scribner, $21), appeared in bookstores in early June with a sticker slapped on its cover: A Novel of Amelia Earhart. It has not experienced the same success.

The "Imus factor," as Publisher's Weekly dubbed it, may be responsible. (So far the radio talk show host has not plugged the second "Novel of Amelia Earhart.") But it's also not hard to see why Mendelsohn's book has more general appeal than Anderson's. I Was Amelia Earhart, a dreamy feel-good novel, not only offers the promise of life after death (even if the death in the novel is taken only as a symbolic one), but love after death. Hidden Latitudes, on the other hand, addresses a subject that many readers may want to avoid: the messy and more difficult task of struggling on with life even in the face of loss.

Navigating I Was Amelia Earhart is like walking through a disjointed dream. The atmosphere is gauzy and lazily poetic. Sometimes we hear the voice of Earhart, who likes to talk in short, cryptic phrases like "the sky is flesh," "the tide laughs," "the light swims" and "the clouds ripped to shreds." Sometimes we hear the voice of an unseen narrator talking about Earhart: "By 1937, at the tender age of thirty-nine, she was the loneliest of heroines. She was more expressive around the eyes, and no movie star seemed as mysterious as she or wore leather and silk with such glamourous nonchalance. But she felt as though she had already lived her entire life, having crossed the Atlantic solo and set several world records, and she had no one to share her sadness with, least of all her husband."

According to Mendelsohn's account, by July 2, 1937, Earhart's life was over _ at least life as she had known it. In I Was Amelia Earhart, the aviator dies after her "demented trip" across the Pacific with the drunken Noonan and their descent from the sky. But she does not cease to exist. Instead she becomes a "between voyager" (a phrase borrowed from the Tibetan Book of the Dead), "attempting passage into the next life." I Was Amelia Earhart is a rumination on death and life _ in that order. "This is the story of what happened to me when I died," the first-person narrator says in the prologue of I Was Amelia Earhart. "It's also the story of my life."

While I Was Amelia Earhart waxes poetic on the theme of life after death, Hidden Latitudes concentrates on the more gritty theme of life's defiance of death. In Hidden Latitudes, the aviator and her handsome navigator also find themselves thrown together on an island after their crash, but their lives and love are far from ethereal. While I Was Amelia Earhart floats in the airy realm of sky and dreams, Hidden Latitudes is planted firmly in the pain and complexity of earth.

Hidden Latitudes does not begin with the story of Amelia Earhart but with the story of Robin and Lucy, a couple who has decided to sail around the world together in search of adventure, and possibly, a way to repair their flagging love. Their sailboat runs into trouble and is grounded on the island where Earhart has been stranded for more than 40 years.

Earhart watches them from afar, spying on them, leaving hints of her existence, but avoiding confrontation. As Robin and Lucy try to repair their boat, and as she listens to their bickering, Earhart tells the story of the love that developed between her and Noonan after they were stranded on this small strip of land. Particularly poignant are the scenes where she and Noonan, each in turn, express their fears that the other has turned to them only out of necessity. Although heightened by the fact that they are alone on the island, such a fear is hauntingly familiar to all lovers.

When Earhart speaks of her life with Noonan, she uses the past tense. Noonan already has left the island. He fell ill and in a demented state had rowed a raft out into the open sea. Earhart cannot be sure of his true fate. Shortly after his departure, she suffered a miscarriage. But despite her losses, she chose life over death. "Never again would I raise my fists in triumph and say, "It's grand to be alive!' " she admits, "But I would learn, with the seabirds and ocean creatures who were now my companions, to affirm, "I am alive.' "

Earhart's life-affirming existence, despite the pain and loneliness she has experienced, puts Robin and Lucy's squabbles _ and our own woes _ in perspective. "I am sad for the girl on the boat; she has so much but fails to see," says Earhart. "Her mind is like the thickness of storm, driving out all chance for peace . . . Does she know how easily she could lose everything?"

Earhart, on the other hand, has found her peace: the peace of solitude, "bound to Nature and untethered by time." On the island she has found her true self, her hidden latitude. Even when she has a chance to return to civilization aboard Lucy and Robin's sailboat, she chooses to stay. "By staying here, there is no old woman," she says. "There are no wrinkles, no lines, no sad wasting of the flesh. No judgment, no pity, no indifference. I see only a sentient being in a body touched with the grace of belonging."

It is comforting to imagine a joyful existence beyond this life, and Mendelsohn's I Was Amelia Earhart's lyrical tribute to life after death is certainly uplifting (although by the novel's end, it sputters out rather than soars). But it is even more reassuring to know that human beings can confront the memory of their life's deepest pains in the here and now and still survive. And still find some joy.

Hidden Latitudes also sputters at times. It's hard to believe, for example, that Earhart could live on a "deserted" island for more than 40 years undetected when so many people show up there (including the Japanese at one point). But Anderson, in her tribute to the glorious stubbornness and tenacity of life, has reminded us to look for our own hidden selves, our own hidden latitudes. With Hidden Latitudes she reminds us to look not to the future for peace but to the here and now.

Someone should send Mrs. Imus a copy.