Inspired by a raft of avant-garde women in the 1920s, Catherine Jones’ first novel, Wonder Girls, focuses on the arrival of Amelia Earhart in Wales and how this might have linked to two real-life female swimmers of the Bristol Channel.
It was June 17, 1928, when Amelia Earhart landed in a Fokker F7 called Friendship off the coast of Wales. Her unexpected arrival in the small harbour town of Burry Port, Carmarthenshire, must have seemed like a divine visitation to the 2,000-strong crowd that gathered to see the ‘lady flier’. Here was a woman from America appearing from the sky, and floating on water to boot (though three men working on a railway, who walked to the shore to take a look, quickly returned to their work.)‘The Friendship simply wasn’t interesting,’ Earhart later recalled. ‘An itinerant trans-Atlantic plane meant nothing.’
Hours before, perilously low on fuel, and flying through fog with no idea of their bearings, Earhart – travelling with a pilot and navigator and jammed between two large fuel tanks in the empty main cabin – had scrawled her thoughts.‘4000 feet. more than three tons of us are hurtling through the air. We are in the storm now. Three tons is shaken considerably.’
Earhart later admitted to being afraid. The radio was dead, the port engine giving trouble, and the truth of only two hours of fuel was left unspoken. When land was sighted, the three of them thought it was Ireland. A plaque near East Dock, Burry Port, now marks the 20 hour 40 minute journey Earhart made from Trepassey, Newfoundland, a trip which crowned her the first woman to fly the Atlantic, and was the start of a much-publicised career in the air.
This extraordinary event – slick American hype and ambition pitching up near mudflats in Wales – plays a key role in Wonder Girls for watching the real-life event is the fictional character of Ida Gaze, a 16-year-old spurred on to swim the treacherous Bristol Channel.
Nowadays, Earhart’s trademark boyish appearance has become synonymous with the emancipated, ‘androgynous’ women of the 1920s. Back then, who knows what impact her bold adventures had on girls seeking to spread their wings?
‘Babe’ Didrikson, the American athlete who went on to achieve outstanding success in golf, basketball, track and field, would have been 17 when Earhart made her first headline-grabbing flight. Amy Johnson, the Yorkshire-born secretary, was 25, and two years later, she achieved worldwide recognition when, in 1930, she became the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia.
My research into this era of ground-breaking women also took me much closer to home, to the coastal town of Penarth, five miles outside Cardiff, where in 1927, Kathleen Thomas became the first person to swim the notoriously dangerous Bristol Channel.
Two years later, a 16-year-old schoolgirl called Edith Parnell also made the crossing. These girls from Wales were part of the wider trend for women showing their athletic prowess by taking to the air, water, and land too, with the likes of Helle Nice winning an all-female Grand Prix race in 1929.
In truth, I became hooked on the real-life swimmers who managed the 11 miles – though it is estimated to be more like 22 miles when the double-crossing currents are taken into account – between Penarth and Weston-super-Mare. Reared by an aunt after the rest of her family emigrated to Canada, Kathleen was 21 when she made history. When I discovered that the other swimmer, Edith Parnell, had died at the age of 25, I had to find out more. How could a girl so full of ambition and hope die so young? Pulling her death certificate from the envelope, I could hardly bear to look. What I discovered compelled me to try and illustrate not only the hope and optimism of the age, but also how opportunity brought potential for disaster.
A research team is currently hunting for the remains of Earhart’s aeroplane which disappeared over the Pacific Ocean in 1937 and while the title of Wonder Girls is designed to signal victory, it has more than a touch of irony when one considers the true story of what happened to some of these courageous women.
I didn’t intend Wonder Girls as a historical novel – not least with the main narrative set in the present day – but more as an exploration of how events from the past shape today’s world. I wanted to write about the 1920s, a time of change and so-called empowerment, about women getting to the other side in any number of ways. I hope the novel reflects the real-life bravery of these pioneers as well as the sense of danger that inevitably ring-fenced their lives.
Wonder Girls I salute you, for helping to break down barriers and making the world a larger place for women.
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