By Charles Deemer
Queen of Speed: The Racy Life of Mary Petre Bruce
Quickly now: name a pioneer female aviator whose first name is not Amelia.
I couldn’t either. In our star-driven culture, the Glory Stage is small, and Amelia Earhart has had it pretty much to herself for decades. But of course she was not the only pioneer woman aviator in the world. Do a search for them at Amazon and you’ll retrieve 27 entries, stories of women like Katherine and Marjorie Stinson, and Jacqueline Cochran. To this list Nancy Wilson now adds Mary Petre Bruce and makes a solid case that she belongs there.
Wilson summarizes her case in an Introduction: “She [Bruce] was a teenage law-breaker, an unwed mother, and a record-setting speedboat and racing car driver; a pioneer around-the-world flier, an author and an innovative airline executive; a fearless adventurer, a free-spending, luxury-loving millionaire and an eccentric curmudgeon.” Who would not want to know more about such an extraordinary woman?
This book, then, presents the events and adventures of Bruce’s life in chronological order. No detail seems to be spared. Sometimes Wilson uses such novelistic techniques as invented dialogue, hoping to give immediacy to the action. She doesn’t, however, offer more than a superficial glance into Bruce’s inner life. The narrative strategy is straight-forward: Bruce did this, and then she did this, and then she did this, and then she did this. There’s much material here, and Wilson is to be praised for her comprehensive research.
But this book is disappointing in several regards. Although Wilson accomplishes her goal — “My objective was to learn everything I could about her extraordinary adventures, and share her story with others. It was a labour of love. How I wish I had known her.” — the author gives no narrative shape to the story. For all its adventures, this book has very little drama. It is a book without subtext. Its title’s pun (“a racy life,” regarding Bruce’s obsession with racing) will be misinterpreted by many readers as sexual titillation; they will be disappointed.
The result is a narrative that reads like a school term paper. A decent one, mind you, but a term paper nonetheless. This is a book about a gripping life that is far from gripping. This is a book that leaves a future author much to do.
At the end of the book, on her Acknowledgements page, Wilson concludes, “There is of course the certainty that some reader will have one more tidbit of information, one more anecdote about Mary Bruce that should have been included in this book. That’s life.”
Yes, indeed, it is life. But it’s not good storytelling. The art of storytelling is knowing what to leave out.