Amelia Earhart, America’s beloved and iconic aviatrix, who disappeared over the South Pacific in 1937, remains a mysterious figure in American history. She has inspired movies, books, music, and a number of conspiracies—none proven—and her disappearance continues to intrigue.
Enter But This is Different (Steel Cut Press), a new novel from Mary Walker Baron. It opens on a tiny island with an important ritual about to take place. It is immediately apparent that this is no normal island, and these people, especially the main character, Mere, are no normal people. As the novel continues to open, the mystery fans out: with meticulous detail we learn the names of the people and place, and very soon we learn the true name of Mere—Amelia. I am not giving anything away by telling you this Amelia is Amelia Earhart. In fact, the engrossing plot depends on the reader understanding this point. There are clues all over the first seven chapters: the woman’s haircut, the Pratt & Whitney engine rigged to the makeshift boat, the brief description of the myriad islands of the South Pacific, the balsam wood plane that flutters in the corner of her hut. As soon as Mere states “I am Amelia,” the plot gains more and more momentum.
As the story unfolds, we discover more about Mere/Amelia, the island she has come to call home, and the world she forsook long ago. Ultimately But This Is Different is a love story, one of many layers. There is the true love (also a forbidden love) that led Mere to the island—an unfaltering love that does not fade despite years of absence and unfulfilled promises; there is the love of nature and the love of the remote place she’s come to call home; there is the love of finding family and companionship. When Mere leaves the island where she’s lived for 40 years, the reader understands the depth of her devotion to her lover, and the depth of her strength.
Mere, who used to be Amelia, and who must be Mary Anderson in order to reenter the world in 1978 (names are very important, and frequently complicated, in this book), travels from island to island, each progressively bigger (in size or importance) than the last, as she makes the arduous journey to her former home. By the time she lands inNew York City, Amelia has only just begun to grasp how much the world has changed in the time she’s been gone.
The plot is full of surprises and unexpected turns of event, and Walker Baron certainly knows how to keep a reader’s interest. This novel does, of course, require that you suspend your disbelief. Of the many narratives about Amelia Earhart’s life, this is definitely one you’ve never heard before. There are parts of the plot that might seem downright strange, but Amelia remains a sympathetic character throughout and this carries the story.
There is a kindness and gentleness in But This Is Different that runs through the storyline, the characters and their actions, the setting, the dialogue. The language is simple and guileless, which creates an implicit trust of the narration, though there are occasions when the language feels too simplistic and maddeningly vague. The identity of Amelia’s lover is hinted at from the beginning (and some of the more historically informed readers might guess who it is), but it isn’t until two-thirds of the way through that we discover who she is. Here, Walker Baron, though she teeters on the edge of ferocious sentimentality, delves deep into the complex bond between women that is at once miraculous, fraught, and overwhelming. She captures the devotion, the anxiety, the confusion, and the connection between female lovers without flinching.
As the story winds toward its inevitable conclusion, the reader is reminded again and again of the lengths that women have gone to in order to keep their love lives secret and protected. The bond that connects women survives, against all odds.