XOXOAD is pleased to welcome bestselling author Laurie Notaro to the blog! While many of you may be familiar with her narrative nonfiction, in Crossing the Horizon she plunges into history to write this soaring adventure of a rarely-told group–the daring aviatrices of the early 20th century. And as it turns out, it took almost as much work to find these brave women’s descendants as it did to cross the Atlantic!
When I began my research for Crossing the Horizon, my first novel of historical fiction, I had no idea where that road would lead. Eventually, it took me to three continents and had me send hundreds of emails and leave just as many voice messages for strangers who probably never bothered to listen to my inquiries once they didn’t recognize my number.
I was on the hunt. For information, details, photos and surviving family members of people who had died twenty, forty, eighty years ago. They were the descendants of the characters in my book, six men and women who dared to brave the churning, unsentimental Atlantic Ocean in a quest to make history and also prove that women were just as capable as men in any situation. All of them, however, had long since vanished from public profile and headlines in the newspaper. The world, once eager to devour any news of them, had forgotten them and let them fade, undisturbed, right into obscurity.
And, eventually, I found them. Well, almost all of them. Ruth Elder, who was an adventurous 23-year old Alabama beauty, had a family that was so proud of her attempt to make the transatlantic crossing by air that they created her own Facebook page. The others, however, weren’t as easy to locate. It was years before I found George Boll, the only living relative of the audacious Mabel Boll, Amelia Earhart’s most direct competitor. Elsie Mackay’s family, now one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in the world, weren’t particularly interested in speaking about her, but wished me good luck anyway. And it took five years for me to find the daughter of Ray Hinchliffe, Mackay’s co-pilot, settled away from England, where I had been looking, and was living instead in Brisbane, Australia. Then there was the family of George Haldeman, Ruth’s co-pilot, the most elusive of all my searches. After I got a tip from an elderly member of the Elder family that a Haldeman descendant had become a surgeon after five years of calling every Haldeman with a Florida area code with amazingly bad success, I started calling again. One lady with the same last name and a trembling, weak voice insisted on climbing a library ladder to reach her family’s book of history, then talked for an hour about her own ancestors. George wasn’t one of them, unless he was born in 1789. Could that he him, she asked?
Then, as I went back to work on marketing materials for Crossing the Horizon, my phone rang. A number I didn’t recognize. It was a man named Chris Haldeman. “Are you Laurie?” he asked. “I am the great grandson of George Haldeman, the aviator. You left a message.”
I didn’t know whether to cry or drop the phone. I did neither. Instead, I said, “JUST WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? I’ve been looking for you since 2010!” He told me to hang up immediately; his father was going to call.
I talked to Larry Haldeman, Chris’ father and George’s grandson, for two hours that night, and two hours the following weekend.
And what I found was exactly what I thought I’d find: a family very proud of their ancestor, and one that was eager to answer my questions. But, just like the other families I had found, none of them had the full story. About ticker tape parades down Broadway in New York, or about dinners at the White House. About beating pilots over the heads with alligator purses, or that the National Women’s Party threw a banquet in their honor. That they received medals of honor from the king of Spain, or that it is very, very likely that one of the aviatrixes and her co-pilot might have made it across the Atlantic before Amelia Earhart.
That was because, as I eventually realized, that those courageous and brave enough to get into a cockpit and charge across the ocean in the late 1920’s were so focused on their goal that the idea of boastfulness never entered the picture. That once they made the attempt, bragging held little appeal. When I tell these families that headlines screamed their last name almost every day, they are stunned. That the reason their grandparents lived at the St. Regis for a year is because their grandfather told the story of their flight during every Ziegfeld Follies show, and they had no idea.
And I can’t help but believe that this could never happen today in the age of Snapchat and Facebook, where humility is an endangered species and bragging never ceases in post after tweet after selfie.
In 80 years, perhaps there won’t be any stories to dig up; they will have been told and told so many times that the story just wears out before of gets a chance to fade.
I think that’s a shame. Sometimes, stories need to wait 80, 90 years before they resurface, so a new generation can appreciate the boldness of it and can seem new again instead of becoming boring and irrelevant.
Shouldn’t we leave some buried treasure for our own grandchildren?
At the Birmingham event for Crossing the Horizon on October 20 at the Southern Museum of Flight, the Elder and Haldeman families will meet again for the first time in 90 years. I have a feeling it’s probably going to be a special moment. Or several of them. And I don’t think that any stories of today will have the same breathtaking potential if and when they are revisited in 2106.
Then again, no writer will spend six years looking for one specific person. Instead, it will be a matter of seconds.
But I have to tell you, the thrill of finding someone after such a long time is easily worth the hunt.