Book Review

In recent years, I have picked at the history of some of the women who were vying to be the first to cross the Atlantic by air. I touched on Mabel Boll when I did a presentation about the Columbia‘s two visits to Harbour Grace for the Conception Bay Museum, and more recently, won in the 2021 Senior Non-Fiction Arts and Letters category for a piece about Frances Grayson and The Dawn, based on documents I found in Nelson Sherren’s files, which was later edited and published in the Aspects section of NQ journal, and further expanded for my upcoming book co-authored with Nelson Sherren, Their Sturdy Pride.

This, a recent interview about Mabel Boll, and my volunteering with the Conception Bay Museum have made me want to further explore the histories of these different women who wanted to be the first to cross the Atlantic. That, and the fact that Mabel Boll and Amelia Earhart were stuck in Newfoundland for some time before the weather cleared enough that Earhart and the Friendship team managed to take off, placing Earhart firmly in the history of aviation and pushing out the other women. I would love to know if there is more information out there about what Boll and Earhart were doing while in Newfoundland. I have been exploring newspapers from the time, and recently spent some time searing different local archives, without much luck. So if anyone has any information about Boll and Earhart and their time in Newfoundland, please send me a message.

A black and white photo on a woman wearing an aviator's cap, a cardigan and long skirt standing next to the tail of an aircraft. She is smiling and looking away from the camera, towards the nose. Behind her, N-X and C O L U are visible, indicating the Columbia.
Mabel Boll with the Columbia in Harbour Grace in June 1928. From the collection of the Conception Bay Museum.

In this search, I decided to read Crossing the Horizon by Laurie Notaro. This is a historical fiction that focuses on Elsie Mackay, Ruth Elder, and Mabel Boll and their quests to be the first to cross the Atlantic by air.

Writing historical fiction is a challenge. I have an idea for a historical fiction, and know that every error can take a reader out of the story. As well, when dealing with historical figures, it is difficult to know exactly what they were like. Notaro did a lot of research, and talked to family members who could give an idea of what these women were like, and what really comes out is that these women were absolute forces who had goals and worked to achieve them in the best ways that they could. These women are inspiring in very different ways, and approach entering a male-dominated work in ways that best suit their own personalities, mixing their love of flying with their femineity. I love Elders signature red lipstick, Boll’s (sometimes almost outlandish) fashion, and Mackay’s take-charge organization and funding (something that inspired me about Grayson as well).

Reading this book just made me want to research these women, as well as the others who were in the race, even more. Reading newspaper articles and other books, such as The Big Hop by Gavin Will really portray Mabel Boll as a high tempered society woman who loved to be at the centre of everything. And she is certainly that in this book! What it does neglect is some of her more generous side. She certainly throws money around to try to achieve her goal of being the Queen of the Air, but when Earhart wins that race, Boll, in the book, quietly retreats. I would have loved to have seen the small, but important tidbit, that even though she wasn’t the first woman to cross the Atlantic by air, she still donated $500 (a lot of money in 1928) to the operators of the Harbour Grace Airstrip for, what she called, a world-class runway. It shows that she was a complex women, as there are very few records of other aviators paying for the use of the runway. In fact, there are letters after the whirlwind of activity with the crash of The Lady Peace at Man Point Marsh in Musgrave Harbour where the Harbour Grace Airstrip contacts some of the newspapers whose reporters used the strip to ask for compensation. That money from Mabel Boll would have gone a long way in the operations of the Harbour Grace Airstrip.

A landscape photo showing short grass in the foreground with patches of sand, then a length of sand around the middle of the photo, behind which is a small grassy slope and evergreen trees in the background. The sky is a gray-blue overcast.
A picture of Man Point Marsh in Musgrave Harbour. The Lady Peace crashed somewhere in this area. Photo by Lisa M. Daly October 2023.

Neither Elsie Mackay nor Ruth Elder were in Newfoundland, so I have not really researched them much. I did love the romanticism of Mackay being able to see the lights Newfoundland in the distance, and the mention of Mabel Boll going from Harbour Grace to St. John’s to be wined and dined. I would love to know if Boll actually did buy a Labrador silver fox coat while in Newfoundland.

I also loved how small the aviation world is in this book. Boll meets Erroll Boyd, who later flew the Columbia to Harbour Grace and went on to be the first Canadian to fly across the Atlantic. The interactions between Boll and Stultz who went on to fly with Earhart out of Trepassey, and other such meetings that excite me and make me want to discover what is in the historical record and what is historical fiction. That’s the beauty of a good historical fiction, it can blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction, and a well-written and well-researched book like this really succeeds in creating a great story.

I really enjoyed this book, and would look forward to picking it up every evening and may have stayed up a little too late reading. Of course, I did see a few historical errors, but, this is a historical fiction, and changes and omission are done to move the story forward or to add to the characters. I understand that, and would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in women’s history and the history of aviation.

This book has also inspired me to continue with my research. I have been searching through different newspapers for tidbits about these and the other women wanting to cross the Atlantic, and did use the bibliography to send a wish list to my mother-in-law for Christmas, and she gave me a wonderful selection of history books that I look forward to reading. The biblio for this book will be a great tool for my own research; the biggest problem is often finding online copies of the newspapers, or having to search through reels and reels of microfilm. That’s certainly one of the reasons research takes so long!

Six books are laid out on a wooden surface clockwise from top left they are: West over the Waves: The final flight of Elsie Mackay by Jayne Baldwin, Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History by Keith O'Brien, A Flight too Far: The Story of Elsie Mackay of Glenapp by Jack Hunter: Great Mysteries of the Air by Ralph Barker, Women Aviatiors: 26 Stories of Pioneer Flights, Daring Missions, and Record-Setting Journeys by Karen Bush Gibson, and The Lindbergh of Canada: The Erroll Boyd Story by Ross Smyth.
Christmas presents to continue my research!

I have been working away at my book, an article for the Journal of Newfoundland and Labrador Studies, and just finished the final edits on my textbook chapter, which should be out next month. All while working and volunteering.

I did get a chance to read some local aviation history. In particular, I read Bill Bennett: Pioneer Bush Pilot and Outfitter, a biography by Len Rich, published by Breakwater Books. In searching for the link for this book, I found this Land & Sea radio feature about Bill Bennett, I’m listening to it as a type. Here’s the link: Hear about one of N.L.’s aviation pioneers in a Land & Sea archival special from 45 years ago | CBC.ca.

A white float plane with orange markings is on a pond at the end of a dock. A man is reaching up to the wing that is over the dock.
Gander Aviation aircraft on Deadmans Pond in Gander. The Room S 894.

The book is interesting in how it approaches the biography. It is a collection of recollections about Bill Bennett. Each section is another person remembering Bennett. Sometimes you get the same stories told in different way, as it’s clear that quite a few people remembered the challenge of trying to dig a basement in the sands of Labrador for a new hunting lodge!

A Gander Aviation plane on skis on the snow. The plane is white with orange markings and the propeller is turning.
Gander Aviation Ltd. plane on skis. The Rooms S 2291.

Presented this way, you also get personal stories about Bennett, mostly how his anger could be legendary, where after an incident or accident, he would get so very mad and start firing people, only to hire them back hours later.

Three men on the end of a dock next to a white float plane with orange markings. They are standing under the wing. A yellow float plane is in the background.
Unnamed men on a dock next to a Gander Aviation Ltd. aircraft. The Rooms S 2304.

The biography really showcases the work that Bennett put in to running Gander Aviation Ltd. and his travel lodges, and his passion for both of those areas. While he may have occasionally forgotten to pick up travelers at a lodge, his meticulous record keeping made sure they were eventually remembered. And sometimes fishing wasn’t as great at one of his lodges, so he’d fly to another camp and pick up salmon from other fishers to make sure the folks at the lodge always left with something.

A float plane flying over a pond.
A Gander Aviation Ltd. plane flying over a pond. The Rooms S 3489.

I did find one strange oversight with the book. As it was done through the stories of other people, it means that stories are missed. Others remembered their own accidents, but of course, in the case of a tragic accident like the crash of the Beechcraft on Bauline Line, the pilot could not tell his story. I am certain that that incident was a major moment for Gander Aviation.

A fragmented piece of airplane aluminum with the word Aviation Ltd painted in orange on the site. Some graffiti has been scratched into the paint.
Part of the Gander Aviation Beechcraft which crashed on Bauline Line in 1978. Photo by Shannon K. Green 2016.

Overall, it was a short, enjoyable read about another colourful pilot who helped pioneer aviation, particularly bush aviation, in Newfoundland and Labrador. If you love local aviation, then this is an excellent read, with many other major players in aviation sharing their memories of Bill Bennett.

A Gander Aviation plane on skis on the snow. The plane is white with orange markings and the propeller is turning.
Aircraft on skis in the snow. The Rooms S 2209.