UI grad reimagines Earhart story in new novel

Michael Loyd Gray, a graduate of the University of Illinois, presents two interesting scenarios in his historical fiction novel "The Canary."

The novel focuses on Amelia Earhart's 1937 crash and explores the question: Did she die immediately when her plane crashed, or did she survive for some time on Gardner Island?

Gray also imagines Earhart in her youth in Chicago, the same city that was home to an even younger Ernest Hemingway. In the novel, the two meet at a restaurant and become fast friends.

The author also chose to tell the story with an interesting structure. While Amelia is dying on the island, she tells her story in poetry form, which gives a sense of immediacy to her plight and mirrors the random thoughts running through her mind as she waits for someone to rescue her. Crabs terrorize her on the island, and of course, fresh water is hard to find — she must catch some in open shells when it rains or drink from the crooks in tree trunks. She thinks of her mother and her husband (and Hemingway) while she waits.

One especially haunting section is when copilot Fred Noonan dies and Earhart buries him. Gray creates the story that both survived the plane crash but that Noonan died soon after, leaving Earhart the sole survivor on the island.

While fighting for her life, she thinks fondly of her youth, mostly about her friendship with Hemingway. She called him Hemingstein or Hem, and he called her Meelie. They picnicked in Chicago, went to a Chicago Federals game and dined in restaurants and cafes. They exchanged letters when life takes them to different places, and they kept their friendship alive, although there was a hint of romantic interest here and there.

Gray stays true to history, though, and keeps each famous icon in the places they were during the early 1900s. What he does remarkably well and what carries the book throughout is the witty dialogue between Earhart and Hemingway.

No doubt both were brilliant, well-educated and determined individuals, which comes out in their many conversations throughout the flashbacks.

The events the two attend or the "dates" they go on are not what is actually important in this novel — those are just settings. The characters jump off the page as Gray captures their spirit for 21st-century readers to see.

This is a character-driven novel. There's not a lot of action or tension with readers wondering what will happen to either character because readers already know. But Gray is a master with words and images, which is why "The Canary" has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, an award to honor the best from small presses each year.

Besides graduating from the UI with a journalism degree, Gray also grew up in Champaign. He has a masters of fine arts degree from Western Michigan University and has taught at the college level in New York, Michigan, Illinois and Texas.

He currently teaches as a full-time online English professor for South University, where he is one of the founding editors of the student literary journal "Asynchronous" and sponsor of an online readings series featuring fiction and poetry.

"The Canary" is a fantastic idea, and anyone who loves historical fiction or is interested in Hemingway or Earhart will enjoy this tale.

Margo L. Dill is the author of "Finding My Place: One Girl's Strength at Vicksburg," a middle grade historical fiction novel. She often reviews books as a columnist for "WOW! Women On Writing" e-zine and her blog, "Margo Dill's Read These Books and Use Them" (margodill.com/blog/). She lives in St. Louis with her family.

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