Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Crossing the Horizon includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Laurie Notaro. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
“The freedom in the sky was austere, no boundaries, no stopping, no starting, going as fast as you wanted to go. It was limitless.”—from Crossing the Horizon
In her first work of historical fiction, Laurie Notaro delves into the fascinating and little-known world of female aviators in the late 1920s. Notaro maps the trajectories of three women obsessed with crossing the Atlantic by plane: Elsie Mackay, a wealthy daughter of an English peer and the first woman to earn her pilot’s license in Britain; Mabel Boll, a society page damsel known as the “Queen of Diamonds,” and widower with a bottomless bank account also eager to make the historic flight; and Ruth Elder, a twenty-three-year-old beauty pageant contestant from Alabama who used her winnings for flying lessons that helped establish her as the “American girl” of the sky.
Following Charles Lindbergh’s historic 1927 flight from New York to Paris, Mackay, Boll, and Elder become even more focused in their efforts to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. As they redouble their commitment to flying, Elsie, Ruth, and Mabel find themselves becoming international celebrities in their own right, aviatrixes featured on the front pages of major papers around the world. Crossing the Horizon invites the reader to revisit an era when airplane travel was a brave new world and women were on the cusp of achieving their rightful places in it.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Crossing the Horizon opens with an account of Elsie Mackay’s narrow escape from death in an airplane piloted by her flight instructor. What does her behavior in the middle of this crisis reveal about her character? How does Elsie’s appetite for adventure relate to the choices she makes in other aspects of her life?
2. “Lord Inchcape had seen the will of his daughter evolve right before his eyes, her boldness take hold.” (page12) How does Lord Inchcape’s relationship with his third daughter, Elsie, change over the course of the novel? How do you interpret Inchcape’s elaborate efforts to protect Elsie from harm—typical fatherly concern, the controlling behavior of an aristocrat used to getting his way, or something else entirely?
3. How does the $25,000 Orteig Prize (for the first nonstop transatlantic flight from New York to Paris) bring together Charles Lindbergh, an unknown airmail pilot from St. Louis, and Charles Levine, the Brooklyn-born millionaire and cofounder of the Columbia Aircraft Corporation? How would you characterize the nature of their connection? Were you surprised to learn that both were members of the Quiet Birdmen?
4. “ ‘I am already the Queen of Diamonds, but,” Mabel said daintily, “I’d love to be the Queen of the Air!’ ” (page 54) Who is the “real” Mabel Boll, and how does her passion for flying fit in the larger context of her public persona? Why does Charles Levine find her personality an advantage in publicizing his plans to be the first person to fly the east-west transatlantic route? What aspects of her portrayal in the novel did you find most memorable, and why?
5. In what ways does Ruth Elder seem unconventional for a young woman from the wrong side of the tracks of Anniston, Alabama? Why do speculators from West Virginia decide to help fund her seemingly improbable dream to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic? How does Ruth capitalize on her youth and physical attractiveness to advance her own aviation goals?
6. Compare and contrast the reactions Elsie Mackay, Mabel Boll, and Ruth Elder have when each experiences flight for the first time. What excites them about being up in the air? How does each woman feel about piloting a plane? How do their unique marital situations—divorced (Mackay), widowed (Boll), and married but living alone (Elder) facilitate their pursuit of their dreams of aviation?
7. In what regard does Captain Walter “Ray” Hinchliffe embody the ideal of a pilot? What does his association with both Charles Levine and Elsie Mackay suggest about his profile in the aviation community in the aftermath of the war? To what extent were Hinchliffe’s financial situation and his sense of obligation to his family responsible for his untimely death?
8. What does Charles Lindbergh’s reception in Paris in 1927 reveal about the world’s fascination with air travel and its pioneers? Compare Lindbergh’s honors and instant fame to the kind of celebrity enjoyed by present-day luminaries and innovators. Why did Lindbergh’s accomplishment seem to galvanize so many people in different parts of the world?
9. Describe the transatlantic attempt of Ruth Elder and Captain George Haldeman in the American Girl and their rescue by the sailors of the Barendrecht. To what extent were the hazards they faced shared by many of those who lost their lives attempting to fly across the Atlantic Ocean? How might the details of their flight plan have played a role in their remarkable rescue?
10. Describe the atmosphere of competition among the pioneers of early aviation. How were female pilots like Elsie Mackay and Ruth Elder treated by their male counterparts when they joined the scene? How does the historical context of Amelia Earhart’s efforts at transatlantic flight color your appreciation for the social and gender barriers that Mackay, Boll, and Elder were attempting to break? Why do you think Earhart remains better known than any of the aviatrixes whom Laurie Notaro profiles in Crossing the Horizon?
11. “Thousands and thousands of women, many of them waving scarves, were crowded on the tarmac at Le Bourget when Ruth took off her flying goggles and finally looked around her. . . .[T]hese were people who believed in her.” (page 270) Aside from their gender, what qualities do Mabel Boll, Elsie Mackay, and Ruth Elder have in common? What accounts for their tenacious pursuit of their goals? What might these women represent to the thousands of women who would never fly on airplanes in their lifetimes?
12. “‘You have everyone on the verge of nervous collapse with your ludicrous flying!’ Have you any idea what it’s doing to this family?’” (page 336) Why does Elsie Mackay deceive her family about her plans to copilot the Endeavour across the Atlantic with Captain Hinchliffe? How do the family members of the aviators in this era tolerate the uncertainty and dangers inherent in the activity of flying?
13. If you had to select one of the figures in this book as your copilot on a transatlantic flight, which would you choose and why? Discuss your answer.
14. How did you interpret the spiritual communications from Captain Hinchliffe delivered by the well-regarded medium Eileen Garrett to his widowed wife, Emilie? If the messages weren’t coming from Hinchliffe, who were they from?
15. Of the many adventures detailed in Crossing the Horizon, which did you find most memorable and why? How did the author’s decision to intersperse the individual stories of Mackay, Boll, and Elder over the course of the novel’s narrative impact your reading?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. In Crossing the Horizon, aviators like Elsie Mackay and Ruth Elder find themselves having to contradict their families’ wishes in order to pursue their dreams of flying. Ask members of your group to consider challenges they have faced in balancing their goals with their obligations to family. What dreams have they pursued or achieved, and what dreams have they had to put on hold or put aside entirely?
2. In the early twentieth century, transcontinental air travel was still such a novelty that its viability as a form of modern transportation was by no means guaranteed. At the time, female pilots were thought to be a dangerous development—in part because men were not accustomed to women having unfettered access to the latest in aeronautical equipment. Discuss the notion of a “glass ceiling,” and the extent to which women continue to have limited access in male-dominated spheres and professions today. Your group may want to compare some of the cultural assumptions of women in the early twentieth century with present-day expectations.
3. In contemporary society, celebrity and its trappings are sources of constant fascination and public interest, as evidenced by the rise of publications and websites devoted to stars and the minutiae of their everyday lives. The media, as it is portrayed in Crossing the Horizon, offer an interesting glimpse into the nature of celebrity culture in the early twentieth century. Ask members of your group to consider the historical figures profiled in the novel, and to compare them to some of today’s famous explorers, musicians, authors, actors, athletes, and lifestyle gurus. How would Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, Elsie Mackay, Ruth Elder, and Mabel Boll fare under the klieg lights of modern celebrity and social media? What present-day figures, if any, do they call to mind?
A Conversation with Laurie Notaro
Crossing the Horizon is your first book of historical fiction. What initially drew you to these remarkable female aviators and their little-known history?
Sometimes stories just fall into your lap. I wasn’t actively looking for a story per se; writers are always listening very closely to the world to see if something piques their interest, but I wasn’t on the hunt. I was in the middle of writing my second novel, Spooky Little Girl, so I was very tied up with that. But one day I was on my treadmill. I had TiVo, and I always recorded The Real Housewives to watch while on it to make the time go faster. But our Tivo was terrible and it had a mind of its own. It would just record what it wanted to, regardless of what I had programmed it to do. Anyway, I was on the treadmill, put on Real Housewives of New Jersey, but of course, TiVo hadn't taped it. It had taped a British show called Vanishings instead. I was just too lazy to get off and grab the remote. So I watched it, and my mouth fell open. The show was about three women who were lost over the Atlantic while making the transatlantic attempt by air in 19271928. I had no idea. I thought Amelia Earhart was the one and only. And here were three. Three. I didn’t know how I didn’t already know this, why the world wasn’t aware of this.
I didn’t finish my time on the treadmill. I immediately went to the computer after the show was over and started researching. I pitched the idea of book of these three women to my editor at the time, who flatly turned it down. I tried again with a different editor to no avail. Then I realized that I couldn’t write a book where all three main characters . . . die. No one wants to read that book. So I researched more, and found more women who had made the attempt, and to my surprise, there were my ladies. There were seven women, not counting Earhart, who were vying for the crown of first woman across. I remember finding Mabel Boll and thinking, “That’s one of my girls. There she is.” And then Ruth Elder. What else could you want from Ruth Elder's story? The first time I saw her photo I got goose bumps. I knew she was one of my ladies instantly. By then I had a new editor, so I got my presentation down, went to New York, made her drink a couple of glasses of wine at lunch and pitched it. She said, “Um, yes. Do that book.” I almost burst into tears. It was the best lunch I ever had.
You graduated with a degree in journalism, and worked at the Arizona Republic as a columnist for many years. To what extent was your experience in researching these women’s lives akin to investigative journalism? How long did you spend gathering information about them?
My researching skills from my career as a journalist really came into play with this book. The process of researching these stories was similar to something I would have done for the newspaper, except that I was reaching back eighty-five years. Even though technology today is amazing, there’s still a lot of stuff you have to go and root around in person, especially if you really want to get a good feel for your character and find out the little things. Not everything is on the Internet. Very, very little of the accounts and research I found was available online, especially about Elsie Mackay. I had help. I reached out to Jayne Baldwin, who had written West Over the Waves, a biography of Elsie that I had found online. Jayne herself lives in Ballantrae, has been to Glenapp Castle numerous times, and lives in the town where Elsie’s stained glass memorial is. She was right there, in Scotland, and her book was very instrumental in constructing the character of Elsie. The Inchcape family still lives on the grounds of Glenapp Castle, in Elsie Mackay’s house. Jayne was able to answer questions, give me details, send over photos and put me in touch with historic aviation experts like Quentin Wilson. Both Jayne and I feel that Elsie was most likely the first woman to cross the Atlantic, especially considering Wilson’s research and the discovery of what was probably the Endeavour in August 1928. I was able to find photos of the wheel carriage of the plane when it washed up on the Irish coast, and these were photos Wilson had never seen, although he had been studying the disappearance of Mackay and Hinchliffe for more than fifty years. He was able to determine, with a colleague of his, that the plane landed in the water and not on the ice, which was invaluable to the ending of Elsie’s story, and told us what happened to Mackay and Hinchliffe. But then I had two other aviatrixes as well—and through Facebook, believe it or not, I found Ruth’s family and spent a great deal of time talking to them and researching with them. I found George Boll, Mabel’s nephew, who confirmed who I envisioned Mabel to be: a spitfire who would let very little get in her way. Altogether, I started researching in 2010, and then began writing the book in January 2014. Much of the research was actually done at the University of Oregon’s library, as they have access to the entire archives of the New York Times and The Times (London), and I was able to actually get an original copy of Emilie Hinchliffe’s book, which is extremely rare, on an interlibrary loan. Every time I went in for another round of research, the book changed. There was not one day of working on this book when my jaw didn’t drop and I would have to call or email my editor to tell her what I had just found. It was an incredible experience.
Your previous books are beloved by readers for their sidesplitting, no-holds-barred humor. How does Crossing the Horizon mark a new direction in your writing, theme-wise?
Thematically, it’s an entirely new direction for the readers of my previous books, but not that much of a new direction for me personally. I began my career as a reporter, not as a humor writer, but I fell into that spot by luck and chance and that’s the work that got published in book form. I love telling stories. I love it. Whether it’s about my mom, my husband, or a woman who risked her life to fly across the ocean to secure a better future for herself than the one she had in Lakeland, Florida. But I didn’t let go of the humor in this book; Mabel Boll and Charles Levine are both very much the comic relief in a book that is heavy with stress and tragedy. Both were quite vibrant characters in their lives, and they fit perfectly into that slot of providing some downtime for the reader. There’s a lot going on in Crossing the Horizon; I needed to give the reader a break every once in a while, and I wanted to give the book lightness in spots to keep it relatable and human. None of these characters are perfect, in their real lives or in this book, and it was important for me to relay that. I just got to use the foibles of Boll and Levine for some breathing room and make their pairing humorous. They were excellent for that.
When most people think of female aviators, Amelia Earhart is the only name that comes to mind. Why is that?
I have tried to figure that out. We know about the attempts of the men who all vied to be the first to reach the Antarctic, but mainly because of their horrific tragedies and experiences. The stakes, honestly, were the same for Mackay, Elder and Boll. and their stories are equally compelling. Frankly, I believe their stories are much more interesting than Earhart’s role with the Friendship; she was chosen, she was picked, and she slept most of the way to Wales. She was never, ever once at the controls of the plane, and she herself admitting contributing as much to the flight “as a sack of potatoes.” Mackay and Elder flew their planes through storms and gales and trained for endless hours. Earhart didn’t. She rather just showed up. Everything was already planned for her. There was no race, essentially: she was only the last piece in the puzzle for George Putnam and Amy Guest. That may be an unpopular perspective, but it is true. History, however, doesn't differentiate for effort and dedication. There’s only room for one winner, and Earhart was it. She was courageous and brave, certainly, but she never faced the struggles the other women had. Her biggest problem was keeping Wilmer Stultz, her pilot, sober. After she arrived in Wales, all of the headlines of Boll and Elder vanished. The game was over, Earhart had won. No one else mattered anymore, and time has since swallowed the accomplishments each of them made.
Of the three women you profile in Crossing the Horizon—Elsie Mackay, Ruth Elder, and Mabel Boll—did you feel an affinity with any of them, and why? Did Mabel and Elsie meet in real life, or was that a moment of artistic license in your book?
I did feel an affinity with each of them, in different aspects. I think Elsie was considered very wild in her youth, so I related to her on that level. She had a taste for adventure, which I think was her main motivator, whereas Mabel wanted more fame and Ruth wanted a better life. Elsie was in it for the charge of it, to prove she could do it. Mabel was quite selfish and ambitious, but she also had a firm tenacity that just could not be broken. I loved that about her. And Ruth had to fight; she fought for everything she had and everything she would ever have in life. Ruth had an incredible spirit, she was like titanium in that aspect, but she could break off in little pieces if you looked close enough. She fought hard her whole life. She made a fortune and went through it in no time; Howard Hughes, a friend from her more glamorous days as the American girl, gave her a job at Hughes Aircraft as a secretary later in her life. But when you see her as a mystery guest on What's My Line?, a TV from the 1950s, she’s exactly as you would expect, even in her fifties. Completely forgotten as the girl who once had a ticker tape parade thrown for her, she’s charming, sweet, humble. You get a sense of her frailty then, but you can also see the twenty-three-year-old who took the controls of an airplane and charged into a storm over the Atlantic in her, even still. Did Elsie and Mabel meet? I think they most likely did at some point. They traveled in very similar circles and had numerous overlapping acquaintances, especially in the theater. They were both famous/notorious at the time; there is no doubt they knew of one another. They did travel to England by ship at the same time, but whether they actually met in person, I don't know. I wanted those two characters to meet in order to fuel one another, but not necessarily pit one against the other. It was a race for all of the women who were trying to make an attempt, and the fact that they came from such distinctly different backgrounds is fascinating to me.
How do the aircraft flown in the 1920s compare to private airplanes flown by enthusiasts and professionals today?
Oh. Oh. The difference between a Flintstone car and Bentley today. In photos, the Stinson Detroiter and the Miss Columbia look like hefty, sturdy planes, but once you get up close to the planes of that era, they are terrifying. Both Ruth and George and Elsie and Ray would have been so close to one another that they would have touched for the entire flight. I can’t even imagine one of them leaving their seat to go and refuel the plane without stepping on the other. The interiors are very intimate. Very small. I don’t think two average-sized people today could fit comfortably in there. I was stunned at how tiny the planes were, I visited several historic air museums to get a sense of what they were dealing with; to me, it seems so frightening and impossible to even shoot down a runway in one of those, let alone be in that craft for over twenty-four hours. Even the Spirit of St. Louis, Lindbergh’s plane, had no forward-looking windows and the plane itself looks like a model a child built. It is impossibly small. But to keep the weight down, they had to be as economical as possible. But I don’t even think hobbits could fit in there.
Do you have your pilot’s license? Are you an avid flier?
No. I was all for going up for a ride in a plane similar to the WB-2 or the Stinson Detroiter, but once I saw just how small they were, I changed my mind immediately. I knew I would be terrified, and I don’t think I could have parlayed the joy the aviatrixes felt up in the air with my overriding sense of imminent death and absolute terror. I mean, the WB-2 was named that for a reason. It was the Wright Bellanca-2, 2 as in, “We’ve only built one other of these . . . ever.” So I let it be. I’m okay with that decision.
Given the professional and social limitations women of this era faced, were Mackay, Elder, and Boll seen as groundbreaking for their efforts, or as foolhardy?
For the most part, they were completely seen as foolhardy, without a doubt. Eleanor Roosevelt even called Ruth Elder out. I think Ruth took the biggest blows of all—the Irish Times was even writing editorials about what a foolish girl she was. Mackay didn't really get any flak, but only because she kept the flight a secret. After her death, articles were written about how she lured Hinchliffe with her feminine wiles, and that’s when the furor rose over a woman flying. Europe prohibited transatlantic flights after the Endeavour went down. Oddly, Mabel received little to no negative coverage about her gender, or none that I could find. Perhaps the fact that she was a woman of wealth elevated her somewhat in popular perception. But poor Ruth. She really, honestly took a beating in the press.
In the course of researching and writing this book, did you uncover anything that truly surprised or bewildered you? Please elaborate.
That happened almost every day. I just kept finding nuggets, particularly with Mabel and Ruth. I had talked to a fellow named Jerry York from Anniston, Alabama, who often gives lectures about Ruth and tries to raise her profile a bit. I would consult him on issues I wasn’t clear about, and we were both puzzled when I found a reference of a warrant for Ruth’s arrest in 1928. So I dug, and searched databases and newspapers and discovered the story about the incident with the traveling minister. I’m pretty sure Ruth fled that tiny town she was in pretty fast and hightailed it back to Anniston, so she might not have known that there was a warrant out for her under some prehistoric law about a married woman and an unmarried man spending time together. It wasn’t until Ruth got famous that the law caught up to her and the whole thing blew up again. I believe she ended up paying a fine, and the issue was dropped. I was also in contact with Christine Turner, who runs the Ruth Elder page on Facebook and is a cousin of Ruth’s. We did some research together and realized that oil leak that brought the American Girl down was probably caused by the damage done when the student pilot crashed into Ruth’s plane at Roosevelt Field. Had it not been for that fateful incident, Ruth and George most likely would have made it across. Christine had done a genealogical search for Ruth during this time, and that was how we discovered that Ruth met Lyle Womack in Panama while visiting her aunt. That had been a missing piece of the puzzle for quite a while; no one could figure out how she met a businessman from Panama.
When I spoke to Ray Hinchliffe’s granddaughter, I discovered that Emilie had traveled to Australia on the SS Ranchi, the last ship that Elsie had decorated for P&O. That’s quite a coincidence. There were also, naturally, things that I discovered that I didn’t put in the book; for example, Elsie’s Borzoi was so devoted to her that she left the house on Seamore Place and the dog jumped out of a third-story window to follow her and was killed. She was inconsolable for a long time. I toyed with the idea of putting that in, but I just couldn't do it. And it wasn't until I talked to George Boll, Mabel’s nephew, that it was clarified that she did not die as a penniless ward of a state hospital in an insane asylum as is the rumor. She had a stroke in a private hospital, probably Lenox Hill, and died shortly thereafter. And the fact that George’s children used to play dress up in Mabel’s old clothes killed me. I hope someone still has that gold sweater.
Will we be reading more of your historical fiction? Inquiring minds want to know!
I am in the final stages of finishing the research for a new book of historical fiction also based on fact and a grisly murder that happened in 1931, and I have several ideas for novels after I finish that one. It turns out that I really love writing historical fiction; I am enamored with the research, the structure, and the telling of the story. I really love history, I really love digging in archives and putting the pieces together. My dining room table was a massive puzzle for about a year as I was outlining Crossing the Horizon. I certainly hope readers will see what I found so fascinating and magnetic about the stories of Ruth, Elsie and Mabel, and that I can continue to unearth compelling and riveting stories that time forgot and share them with a contemporary audience. I can’t think of anything more rewarding.